Jews’ Free School (JFS)

Case: R(E) v. The Governing Body of JFS [2009] 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 DanchinLouis Blond, and Heather Miller Rubens.

Image of climbing wall, JFS


UK Supreme Court Decision

JUDGMENT: R (on the application of E) (Respondent) v Governing Body of JFS and the Admissions Appeal Panel of JFS (Appellants) and others R (on the application of E) (Respondent) v Governing Body of JFS and the Admissions Appeal Panel of JFS and others (United Synagogue) (Appellants), UK Supreme Court, Michaelmas Term, (2009) 15.


Jewish Identity in the Courtroom

Heather Miller Rubens, “‘Something has Gone Wrong’: The JFS Case and Defining Jewish Identity in the Courtroom,” Maryland Journal of International Law 29, no. 1 (2014): 368-418.

Legal Reasoning about Religion

Peter Danchin and Louis Blond, “Unlawful Religion? Modern Secular Power and the Legal Reasoning in the JFS Case,” Maryland Journal of International Law 29, no. 1 (2014): 419–480.

Religious Freedom in British Courts

Christopher McCrudden, “Multiculturalism, Freedom of Religion, Equality, and the British Constitution: The JFS Case Considered,” International Journal of Constitutional Law 9, no. 1 (2011): 200–229.

Commentary on Discrimination

J.H.H. Weiler, “Discrimination and Identity in London: The Jewish Free School Case,” Jewish Review of Books no. 1 (Spring 2010).


Jewish Motherhood

Caren Chesler, “What Makes a Jewish Mother?” New York Times, June 3, 2013.

History of Judaism

Michael L. Satlow, Creating Judaism, History, Tradition, Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 1-63.

Memoir about Rabbinical Court

Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1991).

Jewish and Christian Identities

Marc Galanter, “A Dissent on Brother Daniel,” Commentary (July 1963): 10-17.

Where Do Jewish Laws Come From?

BimBam’s introduction to the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha