Dreadlocks in a Jamaican school: Virgo

A guest post by Elijah Z Granet on an interesting religious dress case.

In Virgo & ZV v Board of Management of Kensington Primary School & Ors  [2020] JMFC Full 6, the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Jamaica, per Bertram Linton J, upheld a school’s general policy prohibiting dreadlocks amongst its pupils and held that it was not a breach of the claimant’s rights for the school to require that those seeking to avail themselves of the religious exemption to the policy disclose to the school that their hairstyle was a manifestation of religious belief.

The facts

Kensington Primary School (‘the school’) in Jamaica maintains a general policy of ‘̌’no braids, no beads, no locking of hair’, on stated grounds of hygiene [3]. The mother of the second claimant, ZV, was advised by the school that ZV would be unable to begin school if she maintained her dreadlocked hairstyle. (In the event, ZV started her education and remains enrolled at the school.) ZV’s parents sued Kensington Primary in her name, alleging violation of a litany of constitutional rights.  (Confusingly, the titular claimant, Dale Virgo, was found not to have standing as he had no actual connection to the school in question [9-18].) The parents of ZV never indicated to the school that ZV’s hairstyle was religious in nature, and the fact that ZV’s hairstyle was connected to Rastafarianism ‘̌was only made known to the school once the matter came before the court’ [148].

Freedom of religion

The school’s general policy has a religious exemption and the court was told that ‘had the school been told that this locked hairstyle the child wore was connected to a religion, no issue would have arisen’ [145]. Counsel for ZV accepted that the school was unaware that ZV’s hairstyle was religious, but argued that the school should have instead immediately assumed that the hairstyle was religious and granted an exemption. Bertram Linton J noted that this was ‘a remarkable submission since many Christians and even persons who subscribe to no particular religion are known to wear locks and locked hair’ [142]. The result is that ‘one cannot in good conscience automatically view people with [dreadlocks] as Rastafarians’ [147].

The judge found that the burden was on persons seeking a religious exemption to assert that their practice was religious in nature and that the court would be ‘remiss’ to require the school to investigate the beliefs of a child before determining if the policy applied. The result was that counsel for ZV had made a ‘clear misunderstanding of the law’; and there had been no breach of ZV’s fundamental rights on the pleaded facts.

Elijah Z Granet

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