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The Human Rights Act 1998 protects the right to 'manifest one's religion or beliefs'.
Various religions and beliefs require their adherents to conform to a particular dress code, or to otherwise outwardly manifest their belief. Some religions require adherents to wear or carry specific religious artefacts, others may hold a belief that they should not cut their hair, and a number of religions require their followers to dress modestly, for example, by wearing loose fitting clothing, or covering their head.
It may be possible for many religious requirements to be met within a school uniform policy and a school should act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements.
However, schools should note that the freedom to manifest a religion or belief does not mean that an individual has the right to manifest their religion or belief at any time, in any place, or in any particular manner. A pupil might have the opportunity to attend a school whose uniform policy can accommodate his or her requirements: this will ensure that his/her religious beliefs are catered for even though the school may not be the one preferred for other reasons.
Even if an alternative school is not available, a school uniform policy that has the effect of restricting the freedom of pupils to manifest their religion may still be lawful, so long as this interference with pupils' rights is justified on grounds specified in the Human Rights Act. These include health, safety and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
This principle has been confirmed in three recent court cases4 when, in each case, the court found that a school uniform policy which prevented pupils from wearing particular forms of dress or artefacts associated with a religious belief was justified and so did not breach the right of a particular pupil to manifest their religion.
However, each case will always depend on the circumstances of the particular school. So the judgements do not mean that banning such religious dress will always be justified, nor that such religious dress cannot be worn in any school in England. It is for a school to determine what sort of uniform policy is appropriate for it.
In fulfilling its obligations, a school may have to balance the rights of individual pupils against the best interests of the school community as a whole.
Where a school has good reason for restricting an individual's freedoms, for example, to ensure the effective delivery of teaching and learning, the promotion of cohesion and good order in the school, the prevention of bullying, or genuine health and safety or security considerations, then the restriction of an individual's rights to manifest their religion or belief may be justified.
4. R. (on the application of Begum) v. Denbigh High School  UKHL 15 and R. (on the application of X) v. Y School  EWHC 298 (Admin) and R (on the application of Playfoot) v. Millais School  EWHC 1698 (Admin).
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