A Hindu teenager who was banned from her Catholic high school because she refused to remove a religious nose piercing has been allowed to return to school.
The back down comes after the ban received media attention and the school was accused of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and activity.
Year 10 student, Sanya Singhal, was barred from attending Aranmore Catholic College in Perth at the start of the year because she refused to remove the stud in her left nostril.
Despite having a letter from her mother which explained that the new stud could not be removed for a year for religious reasons, the school said Sanya could not attend class unless she took it out.
What the law says
Miles Heffernan, Director of Litigation at Discrimination Claims, said there is currently no federal law that protects people from discrimination on the basis of their religious belief or activity.
However, discrimination related to religion, religious conviction, religious belief or religious activity can be unlawful under local laws in the ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.
“Religious discrimination happens when someone, or a group of people, is treated less favourably because of their beliefs, or how they choose to observe those beliefs,” Mr Heffernan said.
“So that means how they worship, and their appearance, including their clothing, haircut and certain pieces of jewellery- including nose rings.
“I think it can be argued in this case that Sanya was being treated unfairly by being banned from the classroom because of her religious activity.
“If she wanted to take the matter further, then it is my view that she would have had a strong claim of unlawful discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity,” Mr Heffernan said.
>> Read more: What is religious belief or activity discrimination?
No explanation for back down
After six weeks off school, Sanya was told that she could return to class today with her nose stud intact.
Aranmore Catholic College principal Declan Tanham didn’t give any explanation for the change in the school’s stance, but he did confirm that Sanya would not incur any academic penalty for the time she was forced to stay away.
“I find it kind of ironic that a religious school did not want to allow someone to exercise their religious belief and activity – but I guess religious ‘freedom’ is in the eye of the believer, and that ‘freedom’ seems to only extend to their own beliefs, and not anyone elses,” Mr Heffernan said.
Mum relieved her daughter is back at school
Sanya’s mother Kalyani Singhal said it was stressful to think her daughter missed so much school, but was relieved that she could finally get back to the classroom and to her studies.
“It was very stressful — there were moments she was worried about her exams and assignments,” Ms Singhal said.
“She didn’t have any learning material during those six weeks but the school has promised to give her extra assistance and she is a good student so she will catch up.”
Ms Singhal said the school ban had a significant impact on the local Hindu community.
She wanted to express her gratitude to those who supported Sanya through the ordeal.
“I am thankful for the people who supported us but at the same time I would like to send a message to the greater Indian community that just because you are living outside of your mother country, you do not give up your heritage and neither do Australians expect you to,” she said.
If you have experienced discrimination on the basis of your religious belief or activity, you may be entitled to compensation.
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