Top court to weigh school ban on kirpan

Quebec, Canada - Gurbaj Singh Multani was horsing around in the yard of his Montreal elementary school in late 2001, when a ceremonial dagger, a kirpan, his Sikh religion requires him to wear dropped out.

Worried for the safety of their children, hundreds of parents quickly put pressure on the school board to invoke a zero-tolerance policy toward weapons. Unwilling to submit, the Multani family responded by moving the 12-year-old to a private school and suing the school board.

"We cannot give up our religion," the boy's father, Balvir Singh Multani, said in an interview.

Two sensitive issues that were raised by the incident -- religion and the safety of schoolchildren -- collide today in the Supreme Court of Canada when the Multani case is heard.

It has reignited a controversy that had been dormant since the 1990s, when school boards in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver compromised with Sikhs. In return for being allowed to wear the kirpan, a blunt metal object shaped like a dagger, it was agreed that Sikh children would carefully bind and conceal them.

However, the compromises meant that the Supreme Court never heard a kirpan case. With the Multani case thus set to become the first national precedent, an adverse decision for the Multani family could prompt thousands of baptized Khalsa Sikhs to withdraw their children from public schools, en masse.

Fearful of just such a result, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has filed legal arguments in the case, warning the court that by siding with the Commission Scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys it "would change the nature and scope of human rights protection in Ontario, and negatively affect the most vulnerable in society."

A Canadian Civil Liberties Association brief agrees, stating: "The 'zero tolerance' policy makes no attempt to accommodate religious freedom or even to balance the competing rights and interests at stake."

The Quebec government has also weighed in, supporting the Montreal school board. It argues in a Supreme Court brief that violent incidents in schools have become so common that it is foolish to take risks with any potential weapon.

But a lawyer for the Multani family, Julius Grey, argues that if kirpans are seen as unacceptably dangerous, then so are pens, geometry compasses, automobiles and ceremonial maces.

"A central point I will be making involves the danger of taking security too far," Mr. Grey said in an interview.

"How far can you restrain religious freedom?"

The Multanis won their case at trial, but the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled 3-0 to uphold the authority of the school board.