School’s demand that Rasta boy cut his dreadlocks ‘unconstitutional’, court finds

The future of an academically gifted senior high school boy is in the balance again. The prestige school to which the boy had earlier won admission refused to enroll him unless he cut off his dreadlocks. Ghana’s high court recently declared that, in doing so, the school had infringed his rights and he had to be admitted. Almost immediately the decision was handed down, however, the school, which claimed its ultimatum in no way discriminated against the boy for his religious Rasta beliefs, said it would appeal against the high court’s decision.

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When I first heard about the boys who were refused entry to Ghana’s posh Achimota Senior High School because of their Rasta dreadlocks, I found it difficult to believe that an educational institution could still be unaware that constitutional rights were not just theoretical, but applied to their own pupils as well.

Judge Gifty Agyei Addo, the high court judge who heard the case in the human rights division, seemed just as surprised, calling it ‘intriguing’ that despite the proclamation of inalienable fundamental rights, the courts were still hearing such disputes.

This particular case concerned schoolboy Tyrone Iras Marhguy, 17, who, through his father, sued the school that the boy wanted badly to attend, but was barred from accessing because of his Rasta dreadlocks.

‘Excelled’

According to the boy, he has worn his hair in dreadlocks throughout his studies including junior high school ‘where he excelled academically and was a model student becoming a senior prefect.’ Noted the judge: Tyrone says that ‘the dreadlocks caused no problems for him, his mates, his teachers or the school.’

Being something of a star pupil, Tyrone’s choice of Achimota Senior High School, with its traditions and reputation for excellence, made sense. As he explained in his court papers, it was his first choice ‘because of its historical ethos’, being committed from the very start, ‘to challenging received ideas of the inferiority of African customs, values and cultural tapestry’. He was also attracted because the school had produced some well-known alumni – Ghana’s former heads of state Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry Rawlings for example.

Having been posted by the selection process to Achimota, Tyrone bought all the necessary kit and no-one questioned him about the fact that he wore his hair ‘in religious dreadlocks’. But on the day that he had to start school, he was asked to step aside. A senior teacher insisted that he cut his dreadlocks saying that, despite his exam results and placement, he would not be allowed to start at the school unless he cut his hair.

‘Ashamed’

He said he felt ‘ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated’ by what happened. As a result of the publicity caused by the school’s stance, the Ghana Education Service asked the school to enroll him, but the school was unmoved.

Tyone’s legal argument, through his father, was that the school infringed his religious rights by refusing to admit him because of his dreadlocks. His constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience and belief were infringed. So was his right to ‘enjoy, practice, profess, maintain and promote any culture, tradition or religion’ and his right to administrative fairness, among others.

He said his dreadlocks were not ‘a flippant display of stylistic preference’. He was acting in accordance with the requirements of his religion and that school rules could not take away from the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution.

‘Falsehood’

The school, on the other hand, denied that he had been refused admission because of his religion: this was a ‘falsehood’ and ‘fabrication’, said the school. Its rules had been developed ‘over many generations’ of students and were constantly revised ‘through progressive thoughts and without reference to race, colour or creed’.

His religion was irrelevant to the school. But what mattered was that he, like all the other 1 758 boys, should ‘conform’ to the rules as laid down for the male students. He had undertaken to abide by all the regulations governing students at the school and knew that if he failed to do so, appropriate sanctions would be applied. In this case, he had infringed ‘regulation H1’ of the rules ‘which provides that moustaches, sideburns, beards and whiskers are definitely forbidden and boys must keep hair low and neatly trimmed’.

Other boys had ‘on countless occasions’ been reminded, in relation to ‘overgrown hairs of all manners and styles’ that they must be kept in conformity with the requirement to ‘keep their hair low’. Agreeing to admit Tyrone into the school with dreadlocks would amount to elevating him and his beliefs above other students and would effectively discriminate against the rest of the boys.

‘Religious intolerance’

Judge Addo agreed that rules were important for institutions like schools, and without them, indiscipline would ‘cascade’ and ‘pollute the academic environment’. But did this mean that the authorities at Achimota could make any rule they deemed fit? She answered her own question: ‘Absolutely not!’ All rules had to conform to the constitution, she said.

Religious intolerance was undemocratic and while there was thus far no reported Ghanaian decision on Rastafarians keeping dreadlocks, there were several countries where similar decisions had been made by the courts.

She quoted decisions from Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, in which the courts had respected the religion of Rasta people and had not upheld the demand that they cut off their hair.

Violation

What would be the ‘compelling disadvantage’ to the student body if someone who states that he maintains dreadlocks as a religious practice, was allowed to maintain his hair in school, asked the judge. The school authorities wanted boys to keep their hair ‘low, simple and natural’ but had not shown how the ‘present state of hair’ of Tyrone would ‘impact negatively on his own educational good’ or that of the rest of the student body.

Having found that the school’s insistence on Tyone cutting his hair as a precondition for admitting him ‘amounts to an illegal and unconstitutional attempt’ to suspend his guaranteed freedom to practice and manifest his religion, ‘[t]his court will not fold its arms and watch such violation.'

'The conduct is nothing but unlawful and unconstitutional.’ It also violated his dignity. Further, administrative justice was a human right, and the school failed to act in accordance with the dictates of administrative justice by enrolling him ‘simply because he stood by the manifestation of his religion.’

Interfering

The court made a number of orders including restraining the school from interfering ‘in any way’ with Tyrone’s school education on the basis of his religious belief and practice as a Rastafarian.

Tyrone was one of two boys facing the same problem at the school. The high court said both were to be accepted and enrolled.

While the result was widely welcomed by the boys' families and others, the school almost immediately announced that it would appeal the decision – and according to local media the decision to appeal was fully supported by the school’s parent teacher association. In the meantime, however, pending the appeal, the two students have been admitted.