A Sikh man in Windsor, Ont., who refused to remove a ceremonial dagger when entering a courtroom has ignited a fierce debate about religious rights and security concerns.
Dr. Sukhdev Kooner was scheduled to testify in Ontario Superior Court Thursday about an ongoing dispute between leadership parties in the Windsor Sikh Community.
Kooner, an internist and allergist, also serves as president of the Sikh Cultural Society of Metropolitan Windsor.
As a devout Sikh, Kooner wears a kirpan, a ceremonial knife, on his hip at all times and had it on him when he arrived at court.
"We are supposed to wear this all the time, even when we are sleeping, taking showers, cutting the grass," Kooner told CBC News.
In order to enter the courtroom Kooner would have needed to surrender his kirpan at security, but the man refused, and stayed outside.
"Removing this, it's like somebody has cut my arm off," said Kooner.
'They have taken it off, so they are not Sikh anymore. They are considered excommunicated.' —Sukhdev Kooner
Justice Steven Rogan said the kirpan, which is viewed by Sikhs as a symbol of peace, could be considered a weapon, but did not force Kooner to remove it and enter the courtroom.
"It's not an offensive weapon," said Patrick Ducharme, Kooner's lawyer.
"It would only ever be used to defend someone who is helpless."
Dozens in court removed daggers
In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a ban on wearing the kirpan in public, after a 12-year-old Quebec boy was ordered to remove the ceremonial dagger at school.
Kooner has worn his kirpan for 17 years at the hospital where he works and tells CBC News he has been in court dozens of times both in Toronto and Windsor, but has never been asked to remove his kirpan.
The courtroom was packed with dozens of other devout Sikhs who had removed their kirpans.
"We are working very diligently to keep the community together, to maintain the peace and harmony," said Harjinder Singh Kandola.
Kooner said the others were wrong to remove the kirpan, one of five articles all ordained Sikhs are ordered to keep on them their entire lives.
"They have taken it off, so they are not Sikh anymore. They are considered excommunicated," said Kooner.
"Even if someone orders you to take it off, you do not."
Flying is 'different'
Kooner admits he removes his kirpan in order to fly, but says that situation is different, because he has no choice but to remove the dagger and say a prayer for forgiveness.
Ray Colautti, a lawyer representing others in the civil case, said his clients respected the rules of the court, and that the issue of the kirpan is a "red herring."
"It's a hyped-up thing," said Ducharme. "It was designed and was successful in getting two adjournments."
Security was boosted at Windsor's courthouse in April 2006, after a man attending court for sentencing pulled out a knife and began slashing his wrists.
Kooner calls his kirpan a weapon of peace, and not a security concern, noting that there are other weapons in a courthouse.
"It's the same thing as a policeman going in there, someone could just grab the gun and use it," he said.
Can testify outside court
In the end, Justice Rogan ruled Kooner could enter a sworn affidavit, which will be recorded outside the courthouse in a lawyer's office.
It may be used as evidence in place of cross-examination when the trial resumes June 1st.
Kooner said, if called to court again, he will stand firm on his religious beliefs and not remove his dagger.
"I don't want to set a precedent. We already have one place, airplanes, where we cannot use it. Today it will be in the court, tomorrow it will be in the schools, and then it will be everywhere else."
Kooner said he is currently lobbying to be allowed to wear his kirpan on airplanes.