Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 13, 2006
Kirpan decision affirms religious freedom
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Lawyers say the recent Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) decision upholding the right of a Sikh student to wear a kirpan to a Quebec public school is a positive affirmation of religious freedom.
"It is gesture in favour of pluralism and accommodation of religious differences," says constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers, who has intervened on behalf of religious groups on a variety of religious freedom issues before the courts.
In the March 2 unanimous decision, the SCOC ruled the public school's kirpan ban violated the student's rights under the charter.
"The interference with G's freedom of religion is neither trivial nor insignificant, as it has deprived him of his right to attend a public school," says the decision written by Justice Louise Charron. The school commissioners had prohibited kirpans for safety reasons after the dagger fell out of then 17-year-old Gurbaj Singh Multani's clothes four years ago.
Lauwers says outward signs of the religion have to be tolerated and would extend to crosses, stars of David and other religious symbols.
The court did say the school could place restrictions on the kirpan for safety reasons, for example making sure it is blunt, sheathed and sewn inside the boy's clothing.
Lauwers sees the decision as beneficial for Catholics attending public schools because it would make it difficult for the school to prohibit religious symbols or T-shirts.
If a restriction on religious practice has the effect of driving someone out of the public schools, the court has said in this case it's an infringement of Section 2 (a) of the charter, he said.
The decision has been highly controversial, especially in Quebec, where the majority population tends to be more secularist.
Quebec writer Brigitte Pellerin in a March 7 Ottawa Citizen column describes Quebec reaction to the ruling as "overwhelmingly negative."
"Outside Quebec, Canadian society is so worried about, in the words of the Supreme Court, 'showing respect to its minorities' that it's forgetting what made Canada Canadian," she writes.
"What the court is saying is that any religious belief held with sufficient intensity, whether mainstream or highly idiosyncratic, confers immunity from normal rules of tort, public safety or anything else."
"Many Sikhs believe that carrying a purely symbolic kirpan is enough. But what if a religion really does mandate carrying, say, a gun? Or polygamy?"