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Durban - A Muslim family is embroiled in a row with a Joburg school for refusing their Grade 8 son to grow his beard as part of the boy’s Islamic practices.

The family believes the actions are part of the “unconstitutional” and “racist” practices of denying Muslim pupils their religious rights at prestigious Gauteng schools, and has threatened to take the fight to court.

Ashton International College’s Benoni, Ekurhuleni, branch has been found by a Department of Basic Education (DBE) legal opinion to have acted unconstitutionally by refusing to allow the pupil to grow his beard.

The pupil’s father, who will remain anonymous to protect his son’s identity, labelled Ashton College “Islamophobic and racist” after the school allegedly told the parent that the pupil should either shave his beard or leave the school. According to his father, the boy decided to follow the Hanafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence, which obliges males who have reached puberty to grow their beards.

Despite a formal application made by the father, the school declined the request and supposedly issued the ultimatum for the pupil to shave or leave.

Ashton College, however, emphasised yesterday that it was an “independent Christian school”, where all prospective parents were informed of the institution’s ethos.

The boy’s father retorted that, although he would like to solve the impasse amicably, he was prepared for a court battle.

Advocate Charles Ledwaba, the DBE’s director of legislative services, asserted in a legal opinion that the South African Schools Act enforced religious observance - in line with the country’s Constitution - to both public and independent schools.

Ledwaba quoted case law stemming from both the Constitutional Court and the South Gauteng High Court to argue his point, where both courts found that school rules couldn’t supersede supreme law.

Ashton College declined to comment on the DBE’s legal opinion, saying it had engaged lawyers and was advised not to make public statements.

However, Mark Brown, the company’s executive director, stressed in a statement to The Mercury’s sister newspaper, The Star, that the school was Christian and private. “(Parents) accept, sign and agree to our school ethos and code of conduct voluntarily before their child is registered at Ashton International College.

“While Christian, our school is multicultural in that students of all faiths are welcomed and all our students adhere to the same uniform and code of conduct requirements."

The boy’s father welcomed the DBE’s intervention. He hoped his 13-year-old - "a star pupil" - would be allowed to grow his beard, but he was prepared to “approach the highest court” if this was not the case.

The Mercury