Conflict over carrying a ceremonial knife
About 10% of the estimated quarter million Sikhs in Canada are orthodox and follow "the five Ks" -- clothing practices
which include the wearing of a ceremonial knife, called a kirpan. Gurbaj Singh, 12, was one. 3 A school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
prohibited him from wearing his kirpan on school property, fearing the possibility of violence. Others schools in Alberta, Ontario and British
Columbia allow the wearing of a kirpan, which orthodox Sikhs believe is compulsory for all baptized members of the faith.
The Supreme Court of Canada delivered a unanimous ruling in this memorable case
on 2006-MAR-02. Like so many past decisions, the court attempted to
strike a balance between two conflicting concerns. In this case, it is religious freedom vs. public safety. The Court overturned the ban. Justice
Louise Charron wrote that religious tolerance is"
"...a very important value of Canadian society....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."
Gurbaj Singh Multani, was a pre-teen, aged 12, who attended an elementary
public school operated by the Commission Scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys (Marguerite-Bourgeoys
School Board or CSMB)) in Montreal, Quebec. In 2001-NOV-19, he accidentally
dropped his kirpan when playing at recess. This triggered a dispute with the
board over his right to wear the knife. Initially, lower level officials at the CSMB allowed him
to wear his kirpan as long as it was placed in a scabbard with a flap sewn
securely shut so that the knife could not be removed. However, more senior levels of
the CSMB overturned that decision and prohibited Multani from wearing a kirpan under
any circumstances. They would have allowed a symbolic kirpan -- perhaps a
non-functional piece of jewelry -- but not a real knife. Multani's famly sued.
The trial and appeal:
On 2002-MAY-27, the trial judge overturned the SCMB's decision and
allowed him to wear a kirpan, but only if he followed six restrictions
established by the court.
On 2004-MAR-04, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court's
ruling, thus once again preventing Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan.
His parents had withdrawn him from the public school, and enrolled him in a private
school where he was permitted to wear his kirpan. A five-year legal battle resulted,
ending at the Supreme Court of Canada.
The appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada:
The factum written by the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- an intervener in
the case before the Supreme Court -- stated:
"This appeal therefore involves conflict between two fundamental rights:
1. the right of every person to attend public school and express his or her
religion without discrimination; and 2. the CSMB’s right and duty to
establish safety policies to protect the persons for whom it is
They concluded that:
"The CSMB has the right and a duty to ensure safety in its schools.
However, to maintain its policy prohibiting the kirpan, it had to show that
it carefully analysed the magnitude of the risk caused by the presence of a
kirpan at school and that that risk is incompatible with the standard of
safety necessary in schools. It had a duty to show, if applicable, that it
considered and reasonably rejected any accommodations that would reduce the
risk by making the kirpan reasonably inoffensive.....For all these reasons,
we respectfully submit that the Court of Appeal erred in not compelling the
CSMB to consider all possible accommodations before
upholding its ban on the kirpan." 4
The legal fight culminated in an 8 to 0 decision by the Supreme Court of
Canada that any school board's blanket ban on the wearing of a kirpan is
unconstitutional in Canada. The ruling allows schools to place reasonable
restrictions on the wearing of a ceremonial knife. For example, the Peel public
school board in Ontario requires the student to:
||Make a formal request of the school principal.
||Be a Khalsa Sikh (baptized member of the Sikh faith).
||Wear a kirpan no greater than 17.8 cm (7 inches) in length.
||Secure the kirpan in a sheath.
||Wear the kirpan under clothing so that it is not visible.
Justice Louise Charron wrote on behalf of the unanimous court:
"...not a single violent incident related to the presence of
kirpans in schools has been reported....Although it is not necessary to wait
for harm to be done before acting, the existence of concerns relating to
safety must be unequivocally established for the infringement of a
constitutional right to be justified. A total prohibition against wearing a
kirpan to school undermines the value of this religious symbol and sends
students the message that some religious practices do not merit the same
protection as others."
The court ruled that the board's actions had "deprived him of his right to
attend a public school." They stated that accommodating the kirpan "demonstrates the
importance that our society attaches to protecting freedom of religion and to
showing respect for its minorities."
The court's decision will probably not impact on the prohibition of kirpans on airplanes, in
some court rooms, etc. Justice Charron wrote: "Each environment
is a special case." 3
During the court case, the school board had argued that "the kirpan is a
weapon designed to kill, intimidate or threaten." This argument did not
impress the court. Justice Charron wrote that this was factually
wrong and "disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion." She noted
that students have access to other items that can be used in violent acts "...and
that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and
Sikhism prohibits the use of a kirpan as a weapon. Its use bears some similarity
to an athame, a doubled sided knife used by
Wiccans in their rituals. Athames are not used to actually cut anything.
Reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling:
||One of Multani's lawyers, Jean-Philippe Desmarais, said: "The Supreme
Court has recognized that this fear (over security) should not be used to
violate fundamental freedoms like the freedom of religion."
||The lawyer who represented the World Sikh Organization, Palbinder
Shergill, said "There is a clear distinction between a religious
requirement or a belief of a religious requirement to wear something versus
something that someone wears for casual attire....This decision does assist,
I believe, in an interpretation that would permit the hijab in schools as
well." A hijab is a type of head scarf worn by many observant Muslim
women who view it as a religious duty. Female students are not allowed to wear hijab
in public schools in France. Some private schools in Quebec also prohibit
Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in spite of an opinion from the Quebec
Human Rights Commission which upheld their right to wear the hijab.
||David Wright, vice-chairperson of the Ontario Bar Association's
constitutional, civil liberties and human rights section, said: "It's a
case-specific application of some fairly well-established principles."
||The plaintiff, Gurbaj Singh Multani said that he is not bitter over the
legal battle. He said: "People are getting more interested in our
religion. Ignorance is going away because of this case." He described
the kirpan as "...an article of faith...we don't use it, we keep it as it
is." 1 He
the five-year battle was stressful: He said: "I was a little scared but
the community supported me a lot, they stood by me shoulder by shoulder. I'm
thankful to them." 3
||The school board stated that it would change its regulations to allow
kirpans, "but not without some disappointment."
Reaction among some Canadian religious groups
concerning the court decision:
Reaction was highly diverse:
||The Supreme Court's ruling was carried by all of the secular news
outlets in Canada and by many in Australia, China, India, UK, U.S., and
other countries. It was discussed on many non-Christian religious news
outlets in Canada, including Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Wiccan web sites. For
||A spokesperson for the Canadian branch of the World Sikh Organization
-- an intervener in the case -- said that the ruling "...paves the way to
ensure that fundamental rights, religious freedoms are protected in this
||The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN)
welcomed the decision. Riad Saloojee, the Executive Director, said: "Today's
Supreme Court decision is a strong statement protecting religious freedom in
educational settings. This decision gives hope to many Muslims who have also
faced restrictions on their religious practices in schools." CAIR-CAN's
human rights coordinator, Halima Mautbur, said: "We hope that this
decision - a strong commitment to upholding religious freedom - will
resonate throughout Canada and cause educational and other institutions,
both public and private, to respect the religious practices of minorities."
||The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) also welcomed
the decision. Their National President Ed
"The Supreme Court reaffirmed that freedom
of religion is a fundamental value. It is important that the Court
has recognized that individuals are entitled to have their religious
practices accommodated unless there is a compelling reason not to do
so, so long as there is a sincere belief that the practice is a
requirement of the faith....This decision is another example of the
Supreme Court playing its invaluable constitutional role of
carefully balancing legitimate, competing rights; in this specific
case these are freedom of religion and safety. A multicultural
democracy like Canada requires an ongoing healthy tension between
the particular claims of minorities and overall societal interests.
Out of necessity, this kind of debate can only be resolved by the
courts on a case-by-case basis."
A wall of silence among
Christian information sources:
Although this court decision is considered by many commentators as the
most important ruling on religious freedom and tolerance in Canada for many
years, Christian denominations and para-church organizations remain
strangely silent on this development. On 2006-MAR-07, five days after the
court decision, a search of:
||The Focus on the Family Canada web site (http://www.fotf.ca/)
turned up no entry for "kirpan."
||The Evangelical Fellowship of
Canada's web site turned up two archival items. One was an article more than
a year old in the Fellowship's magazine "Faith Today." The other was
over five years old, and referred to an old statement by Stockwell Day that
he believes in "Jesus Christ as Lord and master of the Universe" and
that Sikhs in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) should not be allowed
to wear turbans. Ironically, Day was sworn in on 2006-FEB-06 as the new federal
Minister of Public Safety -- a position which makes him responsible for the
||The Religious Freedom Project of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
whose web site is at
http://www.religiousfreedom.ca revealed a brief discussions of a court
case involving a kirpan in 1991 and a reference to a lower court's decision
in the Gurbaj Sing's case.
||LifeSiteNews is a Canadian pro-life web site that carries an
amazing quantity of religious news on a very wide range of topics. But they
also ignored the Supreme Court decision.
||The entire Internet using Google and the search string
sikh kirpan "supreme court"
found 2,240 hits. A scan of the top 100 hits
revealed that none were from a Christian information source.
We are at a complete loss to understand why
Christian groups in Canada have ignored this court decision. It is, in our
opinion, the most important ruling on religious freedom in years. It has the
potential of impacting other religious controversies, such as the refusal of
some Quebec schools to allow Muslim female students to wear hijab (a scarf to
cover women's hair). Non-Christian religions have reacted with strong support,
as indicated above. However, the Christian press remained silent. We have
written to a number of church organizations and para-church groups including the
Anglican Church of Canada, Focus on the Family, Life Site, the United Church of
Canada, etc. asking why they have ignored this decision.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Sean Gordon, "Ban overturned: Top court okays kirpan in schools. Religious
freedom at stake, justices say," The Toronto Star, 2006-MAR-03, Page A6.
"CAIR-CAN welcomes court ruling on religious freedom. Ruling gives hope
to Muslims for accommodation of religious practices," American Muslim News
Jim Brown, "Top court quashes Sikh dagger ban," CNews, 2006-MAR-02,
The text of the Canadian Human Rights Commission factum is at:
The text of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association factum is at:
"Court of Appeal" decision, 2004-MAR-04, at:
"Supreme Court of Canada -- Appeal heard," 2005-APR-12, at:
"The Kirpan Website," Sikhs.ca, at:
"Canada Sikhs kirpan win," The Telegraph, Calcutta, India,
"CJC welcomes Supreme Court of Canada judgement in kirpan case,"
Canadian Jewish Congress, 2006-MAR-02, at:
Copyright © 2006 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2006-MAR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson