In an 8-0 judgment, the court overturned a decision that barred teenager Gurbaj Singh Multani from wearing the dagger, known as a kirpan, to school.
The court said a total ban can’t pass muster under the Charter of Rights, because the policy infringes guarantees of religious freedom.
But the court did leave room for some restrictions to be imposed on the carrying of kirpans in the name of public safety.
The final decision in the long-running case — which pits religious freedom against school safety — is likely to resonate across the country and could give some direction to provincial governments on how far they must go to accommodate religious beliefs.
The dispute stems from a 2001 incident, when Multani wore the dagger, known as a kirpan, to Ste-Catherine-Laboure school in LaSalle, Que.
The school’s principal ordered Multani, who was 12 at the time, to remove the kirpan, but the young boy decided to leave school rather than remove the 10-centimetre dagger.
The kirpan is a religious requirement for orthodox Sikh males.
The Multani family took the case to court, and in May 2002, the Quebec Superior Court ruled the boy could wear his kirpan to school but only if it was wrapped in a cloth and hidden inside a wooden case underneath clothing.
Quebec’s government at the time, the Parti Que’be’cois, appealed the decision.
But in 2004, the Quebec Court of Appeal struck down the decision completely, instead ruling that community safety was more important.
In the court’s view, the kirpan violated a student conduct code that prohibited the carrying of “weapons and dangerous objects.”
CTV’s Rosemary Thompson described today’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling as a case of “security versus religious freedom.”
Reporting from Ottawa, Thompson told Canada AM that “as Canada welcomes more and more immigrants, we’re going to get this (sort of case) more and more.”
At a Supreme Court hearing in April 2005, Multani family lawyer Julius Grey noted that schools in other Canadian provinces have permitted the wearing of kirpans and there had never been a case where one has been used to stab a student.
That adds up to “overwhelming empirical evidence that the kirpan is not a dangerous weapon,” said Grey.
However, Francois Aquin, lawyer for the Montreal school 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,” she told the hearing.
Other provinces, including schools in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, have solved the issue with a compromise.
They permit the wearing of kirpans with certain restrictions — such as a limit on size or a requirement that they be worn hidden under clothing.
Sikh MPs are allowed to wear kirpans in the House of Commons, but trial judges in some provinces have banned them from courtrooms.
Most airlines once routinely allowed passengers to wear kirpans with blades no longer than 10 centimetres.
However, after the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S., Transport Canada imposed a total ban on all “knives or knife-like objects,” which included religious ones.
Thursday’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling focused specifically on wearing kirpans in schools.
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