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vwihgurU jI kw Kwlsw!

vwihgurU jI kI &iqh!!

Supreme Court hones ruling on Sikh ceremonial daggers

JIM BROWN

OTTAWA (CP) - A long-running case that pits religious freedom against public safety is about to come to a head at the Supreme Court of Canada.

The court, in a judgment likely to resonate across the country, is set to rule Thursday on whether a Montreal school board was justified in barring a Sikh student from carrying a ceremonial dagger to class. The issue has been argued before, at local and provincial levels, but the top court has never offered an opinion on the matter.

"Most of the time we've been able to negotiate out-of-court agreements," said Anne Lowthian, executive director of the Canadian branch of the World Sikh Organization.

"In this particular case that didn't happen."

The Montreal dispute centres on Gurbaj Singh Multani, who first wore the dagger, known as a kirpan, to class at age 12 in 2001.

School officials initially tried to work out a compromise that would allow him to continue wearing the kirpan - a religious requirement for orthodox Sikh males - but impose some restrictions for the sake of safety.

The governing council of the Margueriite-Bourgeoys school board overruled that approach and imposed a total ban. In their view, the kirpan violated a student conduct code that prohibited the carrying of "weapons and dangerous objects."

During a Supreme Court hearing last April, Julius Grey, the lawyer for the Multani family, noted that schools in other provinces have allowed the wearing of kirpans - and there has never been a case in which one was used to stab a student.

That adds up to "overwhelming empirical evidence that the kirpan is not a dangerous weapon," said Grey.

Francois Aquin, the lawyer for the Montreal board, retorted that there have never been any school assaults with kitchen knives either: "That doesn't mean we will allow students to carry kitchen knives in school."

The case made its way to the high court after conflicting decisions at the provincial level.

A Quebec Superior Court judge ruled in Gurbaj Singh's favour in 2002, saying he could carry the kirpan as long as he met certain conditions - for example, keeping the dagger sheathed and sewn into a cloth envelope to be worn out of sight beneath his clothing.

The Quebec Court of Appeal reversed that decision in 2004, ruling that the school board had the power to impose a total ban.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether that ban violates the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and amounts to unwarranted discrimination against orthodox Sikhs, who make up about 10 per cent of the estimated 250,000 Sikhs in Canada.

The provincial appeal court acknowledged the school board's policy infringed on religious freedom. But it said the infringement was justified by the overriding need to ensure safety in public schools.

Other jurisdictions, including school districts in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, have solved the problem with compromises of the kind that failed in Montreal.

They permit kirpans but impose various restrictions - most often a limit on their size or a requirement that they be worn out of sight.

The different precedents have produced a patchwork of policies across the country - something that's true not only in schools but in other public institutions.

It's all right, for example, for Sikh MPs to wear kirpans in the House of Commons and for visitors to wear them in the public galleries.

It's also all right to wear kirpans in the Supreme Court of Canada. But trial judges in some provinces have banned them from their courtrooms.

Most airlines once routinely allowed passengers to wear kirpans with blades no longer than 10 centimetres. In the security crackdown that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks, however, Transport Canada imposed a total ban on all "knives or knife-like objects," including religious ones.

Thursday's ruling will focus specifically on the school environment. It's possible, though not certain, that the legal principles could have repercussions in other areas.

vwihgurU jI kw Kwlsw!

vwihgurU jI kI &iqh!!

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