OTTAWA—The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a Montreal school board’s ban on the wearing of ceremonial daggers by Sikh students—delivering a ringing defence of religious freedom in the process.
In an 8-0 judgment Thursday, the court quashed a decision that barred teenager Gurbaj Singh Multani from attending class wearing the dagger, known as a kirpan.
The court left room for some restrictions on kirpans in the name of public safety. But a blanket ban goes too far and violates the Charter of Rights, wrote Justice Louise Charron.
“A total prohibition against wearing kirpans to school undermines the value of this religious symbol and sends the message that some religious practices do not merit the same protection as others.”
Religious tolerance lies “at the very foundation of our democracy,” Charron said, and schools must teach respect for minority groups and multicultural values.
Gurbaj Singh is now 17 and in his last year of high school, a private school that allows him to wear his kirpan. He acknowledged the five years it took for the case to get through the courts were stressful.
“I was a little scared but the community supported me a lot, they stood by me shoulder by shoulder,” he said. “I’m thankful to them.”
The ruling will ease the way for younger students still in public schools in Quebec, he said. “I feel very good that we won our rights.”
A number of school districts in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have long permitted the wearing of kirpans subject to certain conditions.
The rules often include a size limit on the dagger, or a requirement to keep it sheathed and to wear it under clothing and out of sight.
Those conditions are acceptable to the vast majority of orthodox Sikhs, said Palbinder Shergill, counsel for the Canadian branch of the World Sikh Organization.
“I certainly hope this decision will put that matter to rest once and for all.”
The judgment could also have an impact on other disputes—for example, the controversies that have erupted in some Quebec schools over the wearing of the hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf for women.
The Supreme Court didn’t directly address that issue Thursday. But the judges made it clear that schools must produce hard evidence to justify any curb on a sincerely held religious belief.
“This decision does assist, I believe, in an interpretation that would permit the hijab in schools as well,” said Shergill.
Orthodox Sikhs, who make up about 10 per cent of the estimated 250,000 Sikhs in Canada, are required by their religion to wear the kirpan at all times.
It symbolizes the fight for justice, but there are religious prohibitions on using it as a weapon.
Charron was scathing in rejecting a contention by school board lawyers that the dagger is emblematic of violence, calling that factually wrong and “disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion.”
Four other judges subscribed to Charron’s reasoning, while three more reached the same conclusions by different legal means.
The Montreal dispute arose in 2001 when Gurbaj Singh, then aged 12, first wore his kirpan to school.
Authorities initially sought a compromise that would allow him to continue wearing the dagger. But the governing council of the Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board rejected that approach and imposed a total ban.
During a Supreme Court hearing last April, Julius Grey, the lawyer for the Multani family, noted there has never been a school assault committed with a kirpan anywhere in Canada.
Francois Aquin, the lawyer for the Montreal board, retorted that there have been no school assaults with kitchen knives either. “That doesn’t mean we will allow students to carry kitchen knives in school.”
The board issued a statement Thursday saying it was “disappointed” with the court decision but would comply and explain the situation to parents.
The kirpan has sparked controversy not only in schools, but also in other public institutions, producing a patchwork of policies across the country.
Sikh MPs can wear kirpans in the House of Commons and visitors can wear them in the public galleries.
It’s all right to wear them in the Supreme Court of Canada, but trial judges in some provinces have banned them from their courtrooms.
Most airlines once allowed passengers to wear kirpans, but in the security crackdown that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks Transport Canada decreed a ban.
The Supreme Court judgment is confined to school situations and does not apply to other areas. “Each environment is a special case,” wrote Charron.