• Student Safety, Freedom of Religion and Wearing a Kirpan to School
  • March 13, 2006 | Author: Teresa R. Haykowsky
  • Law Firm: McLennan Ross LLP - Edmonton Office
  • Last Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Sikh student has a constitutional right to wear a ceremonial dagger at the public school he attended and that freedom of religion is a fundamental societal value. As well, the Quebec school board's absolute ban on kirpans in the school setting stifled the promotion of multiculturalism, diversity, and the development of an educational culture respectful of the rights of others:

    • Schools are an arena for the exchange of ideas and must be governed by principles of tolerance and impartiality so that all those in the school feel equally free to participate.

    • Schools have a duty to foster students' respect for the constitutional rights of all members of society. Learning respect for those rights is essential to our democratic society and should be part of the education of all students.
    • Schools are meant to develop civic virtue and responsible citizenship, to educate without bias, prejudice and intolerance.
    • These values are best taught by example and may be undermined if the students' rights are ignored by those in authority. Teachers are a medium for the transmission of these values.

    School Safety

    A school board's duty to ensure school safety is at the core of its mandate. In this case the school board tried to ensure student safety by enacting a total ban on students carrying "weapons" and "dangerous objects." The objective was to ensure absolute student safety. At the other end of the spectrum would be total lack of concern for safety by a school board. Between these two extremes lies a school board's duty to ensure a reasonable level of safety.

    The school board's absolute prohibition against wearing a kirpan fell within a range of reasonable alternatives. However, the total ban was not reasonable. The arguments of the school board were rejected for the following reasons:

    • The kirpan prohibition was necessary, because its presence at the school posed numerous risks for the school's students and staff.

      • There was no evidence that kirpans are inherently dangerous. There is no question that a student who wants to commit an act of violence could find another way to obtain a weapon, such as bringing one in from outside the school. There are many objects in schools that could be used to commit violent acts and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats.

    • To allow the kirpan to be worn in school risked that it could be used for violent purposes by the person wearing it or by another student who took it away from him; it could lead to a proliferation of weapons at the school; and its presence could have a negative impact on the school environment.

      • The risk of another student taking the student's kirpan away from him was quite low, especially if the kirpan were worn under conditions imposed by the Trial Judge.

      • If the kirpan were worn in accordance with those conditions, any student wanting to take it away from the Sikh student would first have to physically restrain him, then search through his clothes, remove the sheath from the guthra, and unstitch or tear open the cloth enclosing the sheath in order to get to the kirpan.

    • The kirpan is a symbol of violence, sending the message that the use of force is the way to assert rights and resolve conflicts, in addition to undermining the perception of safety and compromising the spirit of fairness that should prevail in schools.

      • Religious tolerance is a very important value of Canadian society. If some students consider it unfair that a Sikh student may wear a kirpan to school while they are not allowed to have knives in their possession, it is incumbent on the schools to instill religious tolerance, a value that is the very foundation of our democracy, in their students.

      • The court refused the "ripple effect" argument that other students who learn that orthodox Sikhs may wear their kirpans will feel the need to arm themselves so that they can defend themselves if attacked by a student wearing a kirpan.

      A school board has a duty to ensure school safety. It does not have to ensure absolute safety. This case shows that school boards should ensure a reasonable level of safety in their schools.

      School boards have the right to impose conditions on students wearing religious symbols. Currently a number of school boards in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario allow kirpans in schools with certain conditions, such as a size limit or a requirement to keep the kirpan covered and out of sight. It is incumbent on school boards to:

      • (1) take reasonable steps to ensure student safety;
      • (2) take steps to instill in their students the fundamental value of freedom of religion (and tolerance) which is the very foundation of our democracy.