Department of Basic Education's legal opinion has found that Ashton International College’s Benoni branch acted unconstitutionally by refusing to allow a learner to grow his beard for religious reasons.
A Muslim family are embroiled in a row with a Joburg school that is refusing to allow their Grade 8 son to grow his beard as part of his Islamic practices.

The family believe that the actions were part of the “unconstitutional” and “racist” practices of denying Muslim learners their religious rights at prestigious Gauteng schools and has threatened to take the beard battle to court.

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

The boy’s father, who will remain anonymous to protect his son’s identity, labelled Ashton College as “Islamophobic and racist” after the school allegedly told the parent that the learner should either shave his beard or leave the school.

The learner, according to his father, decided on his own to follow the Hanafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence, which obliges males reaching puberty to grow their beards.

Despite a formal application having been made by the father to allow his son to grow his beard, the school declined the request and supposedly issued the ultimatum for the boy to shave or leave.

Ashton International College, however, insisted yesterday that they were an “independent Christian school” where all prospective parents were informed of the institution's ethos.

The teen’s father retorted that although he would like to resolve the impasse amicably, he was prepared for a court battle with the school to ensure that his son was not prejudiced in following his faith.

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 - at both public and independent schools.

Ledwaba further quoted case law stemming from both the Constitutional Court and the high court in Joburg to argue his point, where both courts found that school rules couldn’t supersede the country’s supreme law.

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

However, Mark Brown, the company’s executive director, stressed in a statement to The Star that the school was Christian and private.

“They (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,” Brown said.

The learner's father welcomed the DBE’s intervention, saying he hoped his 13-year-old, who he described as a star learner, would be allowed to grow his beard, but was prepared to “approach the highest court” if this wasn't the case.

Last month, Jeppe High School for Girls in Joburg was also embroiled in controversy for allegedly banning learners from wearing hijabs (headscarves) with their school uniform.

Social activist Yusuf Abramjee, who escalated this matter to DBE Deputy Minister Enver Surtee, also welcomed the legal opinion, saying he hoped this would be heeded, or he would also approach the Constitutional Court.

Emailed questions to DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga, who requested them, on the opinion and what the department would do to curb unconstitutional practices at schools went unanswered at the time of publication.

Mhlanga’s phone rang unanswered yesterday and he didn’t respond to text messages.