Ban on Sikh kirpan overturned by Supreme Court

Canada's top court has ruled that a Montreal Sikh boy can wear a ceremonial dagger in the classroom, with certain conditions.

A Quebec school board was wrong to tell a 12-year-old Sikh boy he could not wear his ceremonial dagger in the classroom, as his faith requires, Canada's top court ruled unanimously Thursday.

The total ban infringed on Gurbaj Singh's guarantees of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-0 on Thursday.

But the ruling re-establishes a lower court decision, which allows Sikhs to wear kirpans under certain conditions. The knife must be worn under the clothes and sewn into a sheath.

Under those conditions, "the kirpan is almost totally stripped of its objectively dangerous characteristics," the court said. "Access to the kirpan ... is now fully impeded by the cloth envelope sewn around the wooden sheath. In these circumstances, the argument relating to safety can no longer reasonably succeed."

The court threw out arguments from lawyers for the Quebec school board that originally implemented the ban. It said there is no suggestion the kirpan is a weapon of violence or that Gurbaj, who was 12 when the court case started five years ago, intended to use it as one.

The argument is "disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion and does not take into account Canadian values based on multiculturalism," wrote Justice Louise Charron.

"If some students consider it unfair that Gurbaj Singh may wear his kirpan to school while they are not allowed to have knives in their possession, it is incumbent on the schools to discharge their obligation to instill in their students this value that is ... at the very foundation of our democracy."

The kirpan is a symbol of justice that orthodox Sikhs must wear at all times.

After the ruling was released, Gurbaj said he believes the case arose out of ignorance of his faith.

"This is an article of faith," the 17-year-old said. "We do not use it (the kirpan), we do not take it out. That's a restriction."

The case stems from a November 2001 incident at Ste-Catherine-Laboure school in LaSalle. Gurbaj's cloth-wrapped dagger came loose from around his waist and fell to the ground at the elementary school.

The principal ordered the then 12-year-old to remove the kirpan, but Gurbaj left school rather than remove the 10-centimetre-long ceremonial dagger, which, he says, is a key component of his faith. He eventually switched to another school and his family took the matter to court.

Lower court decision upheld

The case has been winding its way through the legal system for four years.

In May 2002, the Quebec Superior Court ruled Gurbaj could wear his kirpan to school if it were wrapped in heavy cloth inside a wooden case, underneath his clothing.

Quebec's government at the time, the Parti Québécois, appealed the decision. In 2004, the Quebec Court of Appeal struck down the decision, ruling the kirpan had the makings of a weapon and was dangerous.

Although banning the weapon was a hindrance to freedom of religion, the court ruled community safety comes first.

McGill University Prof. Jack Jedwab said Canadians are looking for guidance in where to draw the line when it comes to issues of religious freedom.

"People are looking for some leadership on this point and hopefully they'll get some from the Supreme Court," he said.

Manjeet Singh, the Sikh chaplain at McGill and Concordia universities, who also assisted Gurbaj Singh's legal team, said baptized Sikhs believed the kirpan is a symbol of courage, freedom and responsibility to stand up for their rights.

"It is one of the five articles of faith that every baptized Sikh is supposed to have on their person, all the time," he said.

Craig Buchanan, vice-president of English affairs with the Quebec Federation of Parents Committee, said the issue is divisive.

"It's a tricky situation. If you start to try to limit the religious freedoms, then what's that going to do to other religious freedoms?" said Buchanan. "And if you seek to compromise safety in schools, how far is that going to go as far as safety in the schools?"