School knife ban 'discriminatory'

Brisbane, Australia - A ban on carrying knives at school discriminates against members of the Sikh religion, according to Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Commission.

The Sikh religion requires baptised members to carry a kirpan, a small blunted sword, under their clothing.

The Weapons Act bans people from carrying knives in public places or schools unless they have a reasonable excuse.

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Planned changes to the law will clarify that this reasonable excuse exception includes “genuine religious purposes”, with Sikhs allowed to carry the ornamental sword in public.

However, the government has made it clear the religious excuse will not apply in schools as the safety of children is “of paramount importance”.

Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Kevin Cocks has raised concern over the total ban on knives in schools in a submission to a parliamentary committee.

“The 'reasonable excuse' exception has not been extended to the physical possession of a knife for genuine religious purposes in a school,” Mr Cocks wrote in a submission tabled in Parliament today.

“This has the effect of discriminating against students, teachers, contractors and members of the school community who are of a religion that requires the carrying a knife, such as the Sikh religion.

“It means that people of the Sikh religion cannot be teachers, or perform other work, or attend schools in Queensland, unless they compromise their religion.”

Mr Cocks said discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity was unlawful under the Anti-Discrimination Act.

He argued the government had provided no evidence any school knife attacks had involved a kirpan or other religious knife.

Mr Cocks' submission said Police Minister Neil Roberts should “clarify and expand on the reasons for not extending the 'reasonable excuse' exception for genuine religious purposes to schools”.

According to explanatory notes accompanying the proposed bill, Education Queensland policies already ban students from bringing knives or weapons to school.

The explanatory notes defend the possible breach with anti-discrimination rules.

“While the potential breach has the capacity to interfere with an individual's freedom to undertake genuine religious practices, the safety and welfare of children attending Queensland schools is of paramount importance,” the notes say.

“Between 2009 and 2010 there were 164 offences involving knives (including one homicide) committed on Education Queensland premises.

“In March 2011, a student was stabbed in the stomach with a knife at a Gold Coast school while attending the school's administration building.”

The notes also point out that restrictions on the possession of knives already exist on commercial flights, with Sikhs required to place the knife in checked luggage.

The Scrutiny of Legislation Committee has invited the minister to provide more information on whether the wording of the bill “would have sufficient regard to rights of individuals to freedom of belief and religion”.

Sikhs believe the kirpan is a religious symbol of the struggle of good and evil.

The issue of kirpans in schools has hit the headlines in Australia and overseas in recent years.

Last year, Britain's first Asian judge, Sir Mota Singh, called for Sikhs to be allowed to wear the ceremonial daggers to school.

“I see no objection to a young Sikh girl or boy, who's been baptised, being allowed to wear their kirpan if that's what they want to do,” Sir Mota said at the time.

In New South Wales last year, the education department defended its decision to ban butter knifes and small fruit knives while allowing Sikhs to carry kirpans.

In 2008, an exclusive private school on Brisbane’s bayside was forced to apologise to a Sikh student it refused to enrol because of its strict uniform rules.

Ormiston College told the 12-year-old student he could only attend school if he cut his hair and did not wear his turban, in breach of his religious requirements.