Jews’ Free School (JFS)
Case: R(E) v. The Governing Body of JFS  UKSC 15
Case Synopsis: In England, religious schools are permitted to give admissions preference to applicants who share the school’s religious affiliation. Usually this preference is a matter of mutual agreement between the students and the schools. Yet, religious communities sometimes disagree about matters of communal membership, practice, and observance. On October 1, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom heard its first case as the newly configured highest judicial authority in Great Britain, R(E) v. The Governing Body of JFS (hereafter the JFS case). The case involved a dispute over the preferential admissions process at a popular Jewish school in London, where a student was denied admission because neither his lineage or conversion was recognized by the Orthodox Jewish authorities that determined the schools admissions criteria.
This apparently secular court inserted itself as the arbiter of a religious dispute between Jewish communities, eventually arguing that the school’s admission policies violated not religious freedom but constituted ethnic and racial discrimination. On the most basic level the judges attempted to resolve a dispute involving three particularly difficult interrelated questions: (1) who is a Jew; (2) who gets to decide; and (3) does the orthodox Jewish practice of determining Jewish status by matrilineal descent violate the Race Relations Act of 1976? In the end, the Court instructed JFS to establish a new test that did not make determinations of Jewish identity based on ethnicity, but rather based on practice and belief. This module explores the JFS case and its precedents, highlighting the manner in which contemporary religious freedom discourse is historically embedded within a Protestant discourse that understands religion to be a voluntary choice of belief. And, it explores why the patrilineal/matrilineal model of descent which has existed a long-standing historical marker for Jewishness, with no real analogue to other religious frameworks, made it challenging for the judges to comprehend. This case module originated in the work of Peter Danchin, Louis Blond, and Heather Miller Rubens.
Image of climbing wall, JFS