Jurupa Valley, Calif. — A Southern California school district is allowing some Sikh students to carry an article of their faith — a dagger-like blade called a kirpan.
At least three high school students in the Jurupa Unified School District will be allowed to wear the approximately 2-inch knives at school after their parents agreed to solder them or sew them into the sheaths so they cannot be used as weapons, Superintendent Elliott Duchon said.
The kirpan is one of five sacred articles that baptized Sikhs must wear.
"This is an issue of religious freedom and of faith," said Mary Burns, the district's longest-serving school board member. "Who am I to deny what is an article of faith of a 600-year-old religion?"
However, board member Brian Schafer argued that edged kirpans should be banned and only kirpan-shaped pendants should be permitted in school. Schafer said he planned to ask for a public school board vote on the issue.
"If I were a parent and I knew someone was wearing one of these daggers, I would worry about my child's safety and the Sikh students' safety," Schafer said.
"This is not a dagger," Duchon told the Riverside Press-Enterprise (http://bit.ly/UqB0Ml). "It's less than two and a half inches long, the blade can't be used and it cannot be removed from the sheath."
Duchon said there have been no complaints or violence involving kirpans at local schools.
Wearing a kirpan is required for Sikhs who make the religious commitment of being baptized, said Kirtan Singh Khalsa, a priest at a Sikh temple in Los Angeles.
Khalsa said he would approve of limiting the size of the kirpan's blade or securing it in a sheath.
"It's understandable that schools are a vulnerable environment and safety is an important issue," he said. "Those are reasonable concessions."
But Khalsa said he would not consider soldering kirpans to their sheaths or using kirpan-shaped pendants.
"It's not a symbol," Khalsa said. "It's an article of faith."
It is constitutional for schools to ban knives as long as such rules don't target Sikhs or those of other faiths, said Aaron Caplan, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Other school districts have required students to wear a kirpan-shaped charm or a sheath containing a paper dagger, said Tina Jung, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.
"It's a very delicate balance" between school safety and freedom-of-religion concerns, Jung said. "But student safety is always paramount."