Debate Magazine

The Sikh Kirpan

Posted on the 09 September 2011 by Mikeb302000
The Sikh KirpanJim Asked
What if a religion espouses the belief that people should carry guns at all times? Should Congress be allowed to prohibit the free exercise of that religion?
OK, I am going to analogise this to the Sikh Kirpan, a ceremonial "sword", it is an article of their faith (it is one of the five Kakars) and all baptised Sikhs (Khalsa) must wear a kirpan at all times.
The Kirpan represents the ideal of the Sikh warrior to defend the weak from tyranny, injustice, and forced conversion. Historically the kirpan would have been a weapon used in battle. The significance of the kirpan extends to a personal battle fought with ego and is a reminder to be vigilant against the rise of anger, attachment, greed, lust, and pride.
Although, US law is not consistent regarding the wearing of the kirpan. The case of the State of Ohio vs. Dr. Harjinder Singh allowed Dr. Singh to wear a Kirpan. The court said:
"Here, it is beyond debate that Dr. Singh is a devout Sikh. A central tenet of his religion requires him to wear the Kirpan at all times. It is unrebutted that Dr. Singh wears the Kirpan out of a sincere religious belief." The Court further states, "The crucial issue then is whether the evidence was sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the Kirpan was designed or specially adopted as a weapon. We conclude it was not."

Judge J. Painter, who concurred with this decision, wrote: "I write separately to confess that I am amazed that a case like this would ever be prosecuted once, much less twice, at tremendous cost to the State, the Defendant, and the legal system...The Sikh religion has been part of world history since the 1400s. An integral part of that religion is the 'five K's' worn by its members. To be a Sikh is to wear a Kirpan - it is that simple. It is a religious symbol, and in no way a weapon. As long as the Kirpan remains a symbol and is neither designed or adopted for use as a weapon, laws such as R.C.2923.12 are wholly inapplicable."

Judge Painter concludes in this way, "I cannot understand the purpose for this prosecution which, if successful, would have had the effect of banishing the members of one religious sect from the State of Ohio for its mandatory wear."

Part of the reason for the Kirpan's exemption under various laws has been that it is ceremonial, and not a weapon.
New York City's Board of Education allows the wearing of the knives so long as they are secured within their sheaths with adhesives and made impossible to draw.
Even with their religious significance, possession of the Kirpan can be prohibited. From: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: Guidance for Screeners And Other Security Personnel

Event #6: A Sikh is detected carrying a ceremonial sword or kirpan through a screening checkpoint and is respectfully told by the security personnel that FAA requirements forbid all persons from carrying any knife or other sharp object into an aircraft and informs the persons that they are permitted to place the kirpan in their checked baggage.

Action: The action taken by the security personnel is proper. The sheathed ceremonial sword known as a kirpan, is worn by Sikhs as a mandatory article of faith. The kirpan is usually two to four inches in length. If the kirpan cannot be stored in checked baggage or removed from the airport by someone in their party not entering the secure area, the kirpan must be confiscated. A smaller kirpan may be worn as a necklace around the neck. Notwithstanding where it is carried on the body, if it looks like a knife, e.g., it has a sharp blade, it may be placed in checked baggage but should not be allowed past the screening checkpoint. The kirpan should be kept by the security personnel in a safe place until it can be retrieved. Most Sikhs are now aware of the FAA requirement that disallows all knives and sharp articles aboard aircraft, except in checked bags.

Also, see the Federal Protective Service poster pictured in this post.

It should be noted that the US Supreme Court held in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) that:

the First Amendment's protection of the "free exercise" of religion does not allow a person to use a religious motivation as a reason not to obey such generally applicable laws. "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." Thus, the Court had held that religious beliefs did not excuse people from complying with laws forbidding polygamy, child labor laws, Sunday closing laws, laws requiring citizens to register for Selective Service, and laws requiring the payment of Social Security taxes.
Even possession of a sacred "weapon", such as the Kirpan, can be prohibited if there is a compelling government interest. Although, if the kirpan can be shown to be purely symbolic (i.e., non-functional), as is the case of the New York School Board, it would probably be permitted. Although, that is not a certainty.
I should add that it has also become popular for Scots to wear a non-functional (safety) sgian dubh with the kilt. This is a one piece item (there is no blade) for wear in areas where a knife would not be permitted.

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