Lay Off on the Sikh Student Allowed to Bring a Knife Into His School October 27, 2014

Lay Off on the Sikh Student Allowed to Bring a Knife Into His School

It’s always interesting to see how quickly religious rights go out the window when we’re talking about people who aren’t in the majority.

Those in the Sikh faith must carry a Kirpan (below), a small knife, at all times. In some school districts, they’ve made exceptions for these potential weapons by saying they had to be sewn into the clothes in an inaccessible way. But since it’s part of the faith, if they were to be banned, that would likely mean an end to all religious symbols (including cross necklaces), so most districts have had to figure out a way to toe the line between respecting religious symbols and defending zero-tolerance policies against weapons.

That’s the basis for a controversy in Auburn, Washington, where district officials have given an elementary school student from a Sikh family the green light to wear a Kirpan in the classroom:

District administrators are citing state and federal guidelines that allow certain exceptions to Washington’s “zero tolerance” for weapons policy.

They say there are plenty of Sikhs, both students and staff, who have carried Kirpans to school for years without incident.

In this case, the knife is to be kept under the child’s clothes at all times.

“The knife can’t come out. It can’t be shown around. It needs to be underneath their clothing,” said Auburn Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ryan Foster. “That allows them to express their religion without jeopardizing anyone’s feeling of safety. If there are any problems, we will take it to the family, but we don’t expect any.”

Just to reiterate, the Kirpan is never to be used as a weapon. In fact, it’s offensive to Sikhs to refer to it as such. If they ever hurt someone with it, they would likely be ostracized from the community and be considered an apostate.

It’s one of those religious privileges that scares people who don’t understand it. Outsiders see the Kirpan as a weapon while the Sikh faithful see it as a symbol of their faith and no more. When one person in the district says her safety is compromised, it’s because she thinks of it as a tool to hurt people, first and foremost, and that’s where her ignorance comes into play.

If anyone is scared, not of the Sikhs, but of the weapons being stolen and used to hurt people, keep in mind that there are plenty of potential weapons in schools that no one worries about because they expect them to be used properly — compasses, scissors, knives in art classes, etc. I don’t see why this would be any different. There are no instances, as far as I can tell, of school stabbings by Sikhs; if there was one, we’d be having a very different conversation.

Plus, the district would likely lose a lawsuit if they banned the Kirpan. So from their perspective, this seems like the best move.

Jerry Coyne disagrees, but he falls into the same trap as the others who don’t understand the symbol’s purpose:

Once again religion gets unwarranted privileges. Sikhs get to carry weapons in schools; members of other faiths can’t. The school district should enforce its regulation for everyone.

What makes this especially galling to nonbelievers (besides the failure of the government to treat people equitably) is that this dagger is being carried in the name of false beliefs. Regardless, even if, as some Sikhs maintain, “we are a peace-loving people,” those daggers can be taken and used by other people, too.

No, they can’t, if they’re properly hidden underneath the clothes and never taken out. The problem with Coyne saying the same rule must apply to everyone is that wearing the Kirpan is an explicit requirement of the Sikh faith (as is the requirement not to use it to hurt people). No other faith treats a knife as merely a symbol. (The ACLU, incidentally, has defended Sikhs who were punished for wearing a Kirpan.)

I do agree with Coyne on one point: I don’t see why the Kirpan has to be, for example, a stainless steel symbol and not a more harmless wooden one with a blunt tip. The faith calls for a Kirpan without going into specific makes and models. The school could easily create a compromise around that.

I know it seems illogical to defend anyone bringing a knife to school for any reason, much less a religious one, but I’m just not convinced by anyone who fears for their safety because of this. They’re showing incredible ignorance of what the Sikh faith is calling for here.

Not to mention that, for strategic reasons, I’d much rather be on the side of individual religious rights. It makes our side much stronger, then, when we go after actual cases of religious overreach.

(Thanks to Brendan for the link. Image via Wikipedia)

(***Update***: The picture in this post has changed to be a more accurate depiction of a Kirpan.)

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