MELBOURNE, Australia: In a landmark decision, the Victorian Administrative and Civil Tribunal (VCAT) ruled on Tuesday that five-year-old Sidhak Singh had been unlawfully discriminated against by a Christian school that had refused to enrol him because he had unshorn hair and wore a patka, a head covering worn by Sikh children.
The Tribunal ruled that the Melton Christian College (MCC) had indirectly discriminated against Sidhak and violated section 38 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 of Victoria that prohibits discrimination by an educational authority in the enrolment of students.
“I consider that MCC’s uniform policy in so far as it prohibits head gear of a non-Christian faith, could be described as ‘openly discriminatory,” said VCAT member, J Grainger, in a 50-page judgment that was handed down almost two months after the hearing.
“It is not reasonable to exclude a potential student who wears a patka because of his religious belief or activity from attending the school. It is not reasonable to accept enrolment applications from students from non-Christian faiths only on condition that they do not look like they practise a non-Christian faith,” she added.
|You may read the full judgment here.|
In April 2016, Sagardeep Singh had sought to enrol his son Sidhak Singh at the MCC but was rejected because the school policy states that boys must have short hair and cannot wear a head covering related to a non-Christian faith. A Sikh is mandated by his or her faith to have unshorn hair covered by a turban or patka.
“I filed my case at VCAT in October last year because I felt that the school was wrong in rejecting my child’s admission when more than 50 percent of its student population was non-Christian,” said Sagardeep Singh.
“I was approached by United Sikhs (organization) in January this year when they learnt that I did not have legal representation. They assisted me and arranged pro bono representation by Herbert Smith Freehills, a top law firm in Australia,” he added.
“It was important that the Sikh community supported Sagardeep Singh’s family because the school was relying on an exemption in the Equal Opportunity Act that was meant to eliminate discrimination, to an opposite effect,” said Mejindarpal Kaur, International Legal Director of United Sikhs, who attended the hearing in July.
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which had intervened in the case, said in a statement, “The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal’s decision in the Arora v Melton Christian College case was an important test for clarifying the exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. This is the first time that these exceptions from discrimination have been considered in Victorian courts or tribunals.”
“Although VCAT found in favour of the Sidhak Singh, the case will return to VCAT for a compulsory conference to determine what orders VCAT should make as a result of the Tribunal’s finding that the school breached the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act. We were delighted to assist Sidhak Singh. The decision is the first of its kind under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act, and the knowledge that we have helped the family is so satisfying for us on a personal level,” said Anthony Wood, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills.
“We welcome VCAT’s decision and we are very pleased that religious freedom, as protected by the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the Equal Opportunity Act, is alive in Victoria. Sagardeep Singh looks forward to sitting down with the MCC to find an amicable resolution, as ordered by VCAT,” the Sikh community of Victoria said in a statement signed by Sagardeep Singh, United Sikhs, the Victorian Sikh Gurduaras Council, the Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria and the Supreme Sikh Council of Australia.
The school told The Age newspaper that the school had always thought it was acting lawfully, and respected the VCAT findings and would work with Sidhak Singh and his family to find a constructive way forward.
United Sikhs said that through its chapters in 10 countries it is ready to help anyone whose religious freedom rights are violated. You can submit your request for advocacy help on their online link here.