Freedom of Religious Items

January 11, 2006

A Detroit judge ruled last month that a Sikh student should not have been arrested for carrying an ornamental knife required by his religion.

Sukhpreet Singh Garcha, a Sikh who is a senior at Wayne State University, in Detroit, was arrested on the campus in August 2005 for carrying a Kirpan, a symbolic dagger that initiated Sikhs are required by their faith to wear.

Wayne State police spotted Garcha, who was watching a football practice, wearing the 10-inch sheathed knife, according to court records. They asked him to remove it, and he politely refused, at which point he was arrested. Detroit law prohibits citizens from carrying any blade longer than three inches. The law grants exceptions for people using the knife as a work tool or for a sport they are actively engaged in, but it does not mention religious items.

After the police took the 10-inch Kirpan, Garcha then volunteered that he also had a 5-inch Kirpan concealed in his waistband. According to the court records, it is common practice for a Sikh to carry a smaller blade in case the larger one has to be removed during physical activity.

A local judge, Rudolph A. Serra, ruled that the ordinance prohibiting blades of more than three inches “was intended to apply to persons carrying a knife as a weapon, or for some unlawful purpose.” Sikhs consider the Kirpan a symbol of courage and of their obligation to help those in need.

Serra’s decision said that forbidding Garcha from wearing a Kirpan would be “similar to an ordinance that made it illegal to wear a cross or star of David.” Serra added that, if a Sikh were to use the Kirpan to commit a crime, “the individual could certainly be charged with both the underlying crime AND a violation of the knife ordinance.”

Harpreet Singh, legal director for United Sikhs, a New York City based non-profit that conducts a variety of human rights projects and helped represent Garcha, said he was delighted that the ruling was so clear cut. Singh said he “hopes that this case sets a precedent” for colleges. Garcha said he could not comment on the decision.

Wayne State’s police said that they will not arrest Sikh students carrying Kirpan in the future. Alexandra Matish, assistant general counsel for the college, said that Wayne State is beginning talks with Sikh students and with Garcha’s lawyers about formulating a new knife policy that would exempt Kirpans.

The Kirpan question has come up before in schools, but no one involved with Garcha’s case was aware of any incidents involving colleges. In a 1993 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision that a California school district had to allow Sikh children to wear a Kirpan as long as the blade was dull, sewn tightly to the sheath, and worn underneath clothing.

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with 23-25 million believers. Initiated Sikhs are supposed to carry several items at all times including: the Kirpan; a type of comb; a bracelet; a specific sort of shorts; and uncut, covered hair, often in a turban.

Singh said that more Sikhs carrying Kirpans have been arrested or harassed since 9/11 often because people have interpreted their turbans as the trappings of a terrorist. Singh said he hopes that this case can become an educational moment where the Wayne State community can learn about Sikhs.

In the most high profile active case regarding a Kirpan, Gurbaj Singh Multani, then a 12-year-old Canadian boy, had his concealed Kirpan fall out while he was playing in a schoolyard in 2001. The boy was sent home from school, and arguments erupted among parents over whether he should be allowed back. That case is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada.

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