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In 2020, Central Unified School District took the initiative to consider allowing Sikh pupils to wear the kirpan, one of the five symbols of the Sikh faith, to school.

Prior to this, the California law forbade anybody from carrying weapons, including knives with blades longer than 2 1/2 inches, on school premises, although school districts can make exceptions. According to Central Unified's proposed regulation, the blade of students' kirpans needs to be dull and no longer than 3 1/2 inches, with a total length of 6 inches including the sheath. It must be tightly and securely sewn into a strap that students will wear under their clothing so that it is not visible.

The proposed guideline prohibits students from drawing their kirpan from its sheath and brandishing or violently utilising it. Any breach of the policy may result in student discipline, but the regulation also commits the district to protecting students wearing kirpans against abuse by other students.

Sikh Community Is Large in Central District

In the policy, it is stated that the purpose is to make school campuses "a welcome place for all," and it is noted that a "substantial" portion of the district's population comprises Sikh pupils. According to Sonja Dost, a district spokeswoman, the district wants to honour the religious practices of the Sikh faith, which is why the policy was being suggested at the time.

She said, “Central Unified has always accommodated religious practices consistent with applicable law, such as the wearing of a kirpan. The kirpan is not considered to be a weapon, but rather serves as an artefact to symbolize the Sikh faith.”

Religious Freedom at stake

Rajdeep Sandhu, a member of the Sikh Institute of Fresno, said “This marks another step toward our religious freedom. It’s an accomplishment for the whole community.”

Students who have been baptised into the Sikh faith have made a commitment to wearing the five symbols of the faith. These symbols include a "kara" (steel bracelet), "kes" (long hair), "kangha" (comb), "kachcha" (holy underwear) and kirpan (ceremonial knife). There are some Sikhs who choose not to be baptised or who have not taken the vow to follow the five Ks. 

Kirpans Allowed by Other California Districts

It seems unlikely that Central Unified is the only school district in the state of California to respect the freedom of religion rights of its pupils by permitting the use of kirpans. A legal dispute began in the 1990s when the Livingston Union School District in Merced County, California, refused to admit three Sikh brothers to its schools because they wore kirpans. The school district maintained that the prohibition of kirpans and other types of weapons was necessary in order to ensure the safety of its students while they were on campus.

The school district filed an appeal against a ruling from the Superior Court that required school officials to make accommodations for the siblings in accordance with the federal Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993. The decision of the lower court was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The appellate court made note of the fact that school districts in Yuba City and Live Oak, both of which have sizable Sikh populations, had developed policies to accommodate the wearing of kirpans by Sikh students while they were attending school. These policies included setting limits on the length of the blade.

 

*Based on an article by Nancy Price, published in GV Wire on 14th December 2020 

 

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