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Canada's high court allows Sikh daggers in school

Written by: Staff

Ottawa, Mar 2: Multiculturalism and religious freedom trumped safety concerns in a Canadian Supreme Court decision today (Mar 3, 2006) that will allow orthodox Sikh students to carry traditional daggers to school.

In its decision, the court noted that Sikh orthodoxy requires the wearing of the daggers, known as kirpans, even though they are banned from airplanes and some courtrooms.

''Religious tolerance is a very important value of Canadian society,'' Justice Louise Charron wrote in reasons for the decision after a court case that involved 12-year-old Gurbaj Singh Multani, who was prevented from carrying his kirpan at a Montreal school.

''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.'' Kirpans are already allowed in Ontario after a lower court order, as is the case in some other parts of Canada. today's ruling now opens the door to the practice, with possible restrictions, across the country.

Canada banned kirpans on airplanes after the September. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Some courts ban them as well, although Sikhs attending the Supreme Court hearing were allowed to wear them.

Charron said aircraft were unique environments, but schools had the ability to better control different situations.

Multani's school had originally allowed him to carry his kirpan in a wooden sheath sewn inside a cloth envelope inside his clothing.

But the school board overturned this, and the boy's father turned to the courts.

His kirpan is about 20 cm long, with the blade roughly half that length, but kirpans can be longer.

The Quebec government argued unsuccessfully for zero tolerance for weapons in school, and some parents also opposed the idea.

''My first reaction as a parent is a feeling of insecurity,'' Claude Bouchard, a board member of the Quebec Federation of Parents' Committees, told Reuters after the decision.

''As a parent, is the life and safety of a child more important than religious freedom? I think so.'' Charron said the boy had no history of violence, and rejected the idea that kirpans are inherently dangerous. She also noted that schools contained other objects that could be used as weapons, such as scissors or baseball bats.

Orthodox Sikhs have been been required to carry kirpans since the 1600s. Some say the original purpose was for defense but many insist it is not a weapon.

Multani is now 16 and about to graduate from school, but he told reporters in the foyer of the Supreme Court the battle was worth it.

''Everybody should stand for their rights. I got it. I'm happy,'' he said, wearing a black turban and surrounded by numerous Sikh supporters.

Sikhs struggled for the right to wear turbans while in uniform with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That episode was decided by the federal government in 1990.

Around 250,000 Sikhs live in Canada, and about 10 percent of them are considered orthodox.

In the United States, a federal appeals court allowed kirpans in California, but the US Supreme Court has not decreed a national policy.


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