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School wins Muslim dress appeal

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Shabina Begum said she wasn't sure if she would appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.

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LONDON, England -- A British school has won its appeal against a ruling that had given a Muslim teenage girl the right to wear full Islamic dress in class.

Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, on Wednesday overturned a lower court decision that had cleared the way for Shabina Begum to wear a jilbab, which covers the body except for the hands and face.

Begum, 17, won a Court of Appeal ruling last year establishing that Denbigh High School in Luton, north of London, had infringed on her human rights by not allowing her to wear the traditional Muslim dress.

The school appealed the decision to the Law Lords. Lord Justice Bingham said in his ruling Wednesday that the key question was whether the school denied effective access to education to the girl, The Associated Press reported.

"In my opinion, the facts compel the conclusion that it did not," he said.

Bingham said the school "had taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way."

"The rules laid down were as far from being mindless as uniform rules could ever be. The school had enjoyed a period of harmony and success to which the uniform policy was thought to contribute," he said.

He noted that the head teacher at the school at the time was a Muslim, and that the rules were acceptable to mainstream Muslim opinion.

Begum was sent home from Denbigh High in September 2002 for wearing the jilbab.

The school said the jilbab posed a health and safety risk and might cause divisions among pupils.

Eighty percent of Denbigh's 1,000 pupils are Muslim, and the school feared those who wore traditional dress might be seen as "better Muslims" than others.

The school denied acting in a discriminatory manner and said it had a flexible school uniform policy that took into account all faiths and cultures.

Pupils are allowed to wear trousers, skirts or a traditional shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a tunic.

Begum originally took the case to Britain's High Court, arguing she was being denied her right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs.

In June 2004, the High Court ruled the dress code was a "reasoned, balanced, proportionate policy" and that Begum's human rights had not been violated, AP reported.

Begum appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeal, citing Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs."

The Court of Appeal ruled last March that Begum had been "unlawfully denied ... the right to manifest her religion."

Begum has since moved from Denbigh to a new school that allows her to wear a jilbab.

"We're not sure if we're going to take it to the European Court or not," Begum told reporters after Wednesday's ruling.

"I think I have made my point at this stage," she said, adding that she hoped the case encouraged others to "speak out."

Unlike France, which banned "conspicuous religious symbols" from state schools last year, Britain has no rule against religious dress in the classroom, and schools are free to set their own uniform policies, AP said.

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