23rd Aug 2012 | Articles

Satvinder Juss looks at Kirpans, law & religious symbols in schools in this follwoing article he wrote for the Journal of Church and State Advance Access.


To what extent should the right to religious expressionprevail over student safety concerns? The issue has arisenmost dramatically in recent years with respect to Sikh studentswanting to wear the kirpan in schools. It has arisenacross the world in countries as diverse as Canada, the UnitedStates, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. This is notunsurprising. The kirpan is not a humble object. It has beendescribed as “a small, curved ornamental steel dagger”or “asword”that is “commonly 7.5 centimetres long” and “is carried ina sheath and strapped to the body, usually under clothing.” Theissue is of importance as one of individual religious expression. Butit is also important because it calls into question the commitmentto multiculturalism, pluralism, tolerance, and broad-mindednessthat is the hallmark of the Western liberal democratic state.

The wearing of the kirpan raises these issues far more acutely thanthe more familiar examples of religiously ordained dress codes which do not raise concerns of personal safety in the way that the Sikh kirpan ostensibly does. The obvious question, therefore, isthis: Is the wearing of the Kirpan an issue that should be left fordetermination by individual states given their own specific domesticcontext? Or do international perspectives have a role to play in defin-ing the contours of religious accommodation in society? The ques-tion is not necessarily best left to the realm of rights, becausehaving a right is one thing; being allowed to exercise that right inthe midst of others in society is another. Equally, there is noreason why society should not deem it to be in the general publicinterest to support religious attire by faith groups. Accordingly, theaims of this article are three-fold….

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