Father fights for five-year-old son to wear turban at Melbourne Christian school

Father fights for five-year-old son to wear turban at Melbourne Christian school

Sargadeep is a father fighting for his son.

The traditional Sikh man is battling a Christian school that he claims refused to enrol his five-year-old boy if he wore the child’s version of a turban, called a patka, or grew his hair long.

The school, Melton Christian College in Melbourne’s west, insists it has the right to set the uniform its students wear.

The arbitrator of the case will be the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but it will be closely watched as a test case by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Sagardeep Singh Arora says the school is breaching the Equal Opportunity Act and is discriminating against his son, by not allowing him to wear the patka – an essential part of his religious practice.

He wants his son, Sidhak, to attend the Christian school because of its good reputation.

Sidhak’s cousins already attend the school, although they do not wear turbans.

“The police and the army allow Sikhs to wear the turban … why not in the classroom?” Mr Arora said.

Sagardeep Singh Arora whose five-year-old son wasn't allowed attend Melton Christian College, because he wears a patka. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media.

Sagardeep Singh Arora whose five-year-old son wasn’t allowed attend Melton Christian College, because he wears a patka. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media.

“If you’re enrolling a student from a different community, you should allow them to practice their religious beliefs … they should not be forced to abandon their faith.”

But the school’s principal David Gleeson told the tribunal he was proud of the “neutrality” of the uniform, and said the case was similar to a situation where a Year 11 student was not allowed to wear a hat from sportswear brand New Balance.

“He’s identifying himself as something other than the identity of the college and that creates a difference, that takes away the level playing field for himself and other students in the school,” Mr Gleeson said.

He said racial and religious differences between students “have no relevance to the classroom, in the playground, at school events, and that’s because differences are invisible”.

“I see our students in the playground and I see them totally oblivious to one another’s racial or religious background,” he said.

“They play foursquare together, and if I picture that I have to call to mind that some of them are African and some of them are Indian and some of them are white Aussies … as a school we tend to be oblivious to that and I think that is a strength … that comes from … [the] neutrality of the uniform.”

The school argued that an exemption in the Equal Opportunity Act, Section 42, allows schools to set and enforce “reasonable” standards of dress for students.

The matter has been viewed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission as a test case for Section 42.

The school has also relied on another exemption, that allows a school that is “wholly or mainly for students of a particular sex, race [or] religious belief” to turn away students of a different group.

Lawyer for the commission, Elizabeth Bennett, told the tribunal this exemption was designed to be inclusive, not exclusive.

For instance, the exemption would allow a school for students with disabilities to exclude students without disabilities but it did not allow for the inverse.

“It is intended to allow a group to include those it seeks to advance,” she said, arguing that even if the school enrols other Sikh students it was discriminatory to exclude Sikh students who wore turbans.

“It’s an attempt to rely on the exemption selectively.”

Ms Bennett said the school was in effect saying that “we’re happy to have Sikhs who don’t make any trouble, who don’t manifest their religion in any way that makes me feel uncomfortable … we’re happy to have Sikhs as long as they stay at the back of the classroom and don’t make any trouble.”

Sidhak currently attends a state school, where he is allowed to wear the turban.

The hearing continues.

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