Concept 3: Freedom of Conscience and Religion

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This script is based on Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys. This video portrays a general focus of the case and is not intended as a full account. For an actual account of the decision, read the case Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 256, 2006 SCC 6. at 78 found at the Resources tab.

Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys

Maintaining the safety of students, staff and visitors within the school environment is certainly a key consideration in developing and enforcing school codes of conduct.

In light of recent media reports on incidents of school violence, one might readily agree that rules prohibiting students from bringing weapons to school should be enforced with zero tolerance.

But is there any situation in which a no weapons policy should be adjusted to accommodate a student's Charter right to freedom of religion? This is the question asked in the case of Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, involving an orthodox Sikh student, Gurbaj Multani.

In November 2001, Multani's kirpan accidentally fell out from under his clothing, raising questions among the school community about school safety and whether or not he should be permitted to continue to bring the kirpan to school.

The incident sparked a great deal of dispute among members of the school board and community. On one hand, parents and school administrators argued that, the kirpan could be used as a dangerous weapon in the school, and therefore violated the school's code of conduct prohibiting the carrying of weapons.

“It may be a religious symbol but it's still a weapon. Even if the boy never intends to use it as a weapon, what might happen if another student decides to take it away from him? If you allow some students to wear a kirpan in school, then other students might think it's only fair they be allowed to wear weapons too. Allowing this symbol of violence in schools only sends the message that the use of force is the way to assert rights and resolve conflicts. I will be keeping my two children home for as long as that kirpan is in the school. It's a question of security!”

On the other hand, supporters of the Multanis contended that the prohibition imposed a limitation on Gurbaj's freedom of religion as stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Furthermore, it was stressed that, while resembling a weapon, the Kirpan is not intended for that purpose. Although many non-Sikhs may compare the kirpan to a dagger, to devout Sikhs -- who are required to wear a metal kirpan at all times -- the Kirpan is not viewed or used as a weapon at all; rather it is an article of faith holding very sacred religious symbolism, much like a cross is worn by Christians as a symbol of their faith.

“An analogy can be drawn between the kirpan and other potentially harmful objects readily available at the school, such as baseball bats or scissors. While all of these can be used as a weapon, none are intended for this purpose and thus should not be banned from the school. Furthermore, Gurbaj was prepared to take measures to ensure that his Kirpan is not easily accessible to himself or others, essentially removing its dangerous characteristics. These actions should suffice in meeting the school's objective of maintaining a safe learning environment.”

Eventually the matter about whether or not Gurbaj should be permitted to exercise his religious freedoms and bring his kirpan to school was argued at various levels of court, with the final decision coming from the Supreme Court of Canada in March 2006. In deciding on whether or not Gurbaj should be permitted to wear his Kirpan, the Supreme court weighed the consequences of limiting Gurbaj's religious freedoms against the schools obligation to maintain a safe school environment. In their deliberations, the Court considered the following questions:

Are the school's concerns about the kirpan being used as a weapon or symbol of violence warranted?

Does a school's Charter obligation to protect the religious freedoms of a few students outweigh their obligations to maintain a safe environment for all students and staff?

Is the complete prohibition of kirpans in school a necessary measure to meet safety objectives, or are there other reasonable alternatives that are less imposing on Gurbaj's rights and freedoms?

The questions and issues arising from this case are extremely relevant in today's educational environment. Given Canada's status as one of the world's most multicultural nations, it will be necessary for school policy makers to consider how their decisions have an impact on the rights and freedoms of an increasingly diverse school community. How do you balance the protection of religious freedoms with school safety?


Disclaimer - The resources presented in this learning tool, the Charter in the Classroom: Students, Teachers and Rights (CC: STAR) are included only to assist in the study of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They do not necessarily represent an endorsement of a position or issue, opinion or view of its contributors, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Inukshuk Wireless, the Ontario Justice Education Network, the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust or any of the people, organizations, or institutions affiliated with it.