Religious knives banned – so are they like Christian crosses?

Religious knives will be banned in NSW public schools from tomorrow, following an alleged attack using a Sikh “kirpan” in a Sydney highschool.

The ban comes after a 14-year-old boy is alleged to have used the ceremonial knife to stab to a 16-year-old boy at Glenwood High School in north-west Sydney on May 6.

The NSW Department of Education today advised that all students, staff and visitors will not be allowed to carry knives for religious purposes on school grounds while the laws are reviewed. Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said they are currently considering “options for communities who carry a knife for genuine religious purposes”.

The legal “loophole” under which Glenwood students carried kirpans, and which the NSW Government is currently reviewing, is the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW)5, which allows a person with a “reasonable excuse” to carry a knife in a public place or school – the exemptions include for “genuine religious purposes”.

The kirpan – a small, sheathed sword – is one of five “articles of faith” (or five ‘ks’) that must be carried by “baptised” Sikhs. It is worn underneath clothing, using a strap suspended from the waist.

It is mandatory for the kirpan to be carried at all times (even while sleeping and bathing). “To neglect to wear one or more of the five K’s represents a serious lapse in religious practice,” according to the Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria, which adds, “even in the event of death these articles are not to be removed from the deceased person … To take away the kirpan from a Sikh is to violate his/her religious freedom.”

“Mandated to be worn always, it is an integral part of the Khalsa [pure] Sikh’s person and cannot be properly compared with a cross which a Christian might choose to wear.” – World Sikh website

World Sikh explains the difference between the kirpan and the Christian cross as: “The kirpan is often described as a dagger or a miniature sword, which is what it resembles, but that description is so far removed from the purpose of a kirpan as to make it misleading. The kirpan is an article of faith that plays a role in the Sikh religion that is similar to that of a Christian cross, a Jewish Star of David, or a Muslim hijab, with one crucial exception: it is not optional.”

The website goes on to say: “The kirpan as one of the five k’s is thus far more than a religious adornment. Mandated to be worn always, it is an integral part of the Khalsa [pure] Sikh’s person and cannot be properly compared with a cross which a Christian might choose to wear. Not wearing the kirpan at any time, day or night, constitutes a grievous transgression for a Khalsa Sikh …

“What prevents Sikhs using an article of faith for violence is that very faith, coupled with the same social customs that we all observe. Of all the blades used in daily life, kirpans are the least hazardous because they are sacred: they come with a philosophy that is an integral part of how Sikhs practise their faith. It’s not just a talisman or a piece of jewelry. Removing the kirpan is a serious matter for Sikhs. It is done rarely and only under extreme circumstances …

“The idea of a Sikh attacking someone with a kirpan is far more frightening, horrifying, and repugnant to those of our faith than to anyone outside it.”

However, this is certainly not the first time that the right to carry a kirpan in Australian schools has been questioned. The latest alleged incident has led to calls for a minimum age requirement for children to carry the kirpan.

“There is a huge difference between a knife and a turban,” said chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils Keysar Trad.

“I do understand the ceremonial nature of the little dagger … but in view of that stabbing, it might be something their own elders need to look into.

“When one of their own uses it for violence, they need to review whether or not that person can carry a knife and if there should be a minimum age requirement for it.”

Currently, Sikh students are able to gain exemptions to carry kirpans on school grounds in Western Australia (Weapons Act 1999) and in Victoria (Control of Weapons Act 1990). In Tasmania and South Australia, baptised Sikhs may carry kirpans in public, but there is ambiguity around whether this applies to school grounds.

Meanwhile, Queensland students are not permitted kirpans at school for any reason (although they may be carried in public places), according to Queensland’s Weapons Act 1990.

“Regrettably, we see daily examples of religion-based discrimination against Australian Sikhs due to their turbans and due to their kirpans.’ – Australian Sikh Association

A paper submitted by the Australian Sikh Association seeking an amendment to the Anti Discrimination (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 claimed that Sikhs were often discriminated against for carrying a kirpan.

After noting that “the Kirpan must always be carried by a baptised Sikh to remind him or her of their duty to uphold and defend the truth courageously”, the paper went on to say:

“Regrettably, we see daily examples of religion-based discrimination against Australian Sikhs due to their turbans and due to their kirpans they are not allowed in the premises unless they remove it.”

The Australian Sikh Association gave two notable examples: firstly, when three young sikhs were refused entry into the NSW Parliament House to attend an interfaith public event in 2016 beacuse they were carrying kirpans, being later told that they needed to seek prior approval for this. Secondly, when Australian Sikhs were required get special permission to wear Kirpans into Parliament to discuss the Anti Discrimination (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill.

The paper said there is an “urgent need for legislation supporting a clear and consistent approach to allow for the movement of people of all faiths throughout public spaces”, adding that there are “aspects of Australian law which fail to protect these basic rights for the Sikhs. For Australian Sikhs, these include aspects of the law which require the removal of a Turban and a Kirpan and at times cutting of hair.”

According to the NSW Education Minister, the state government will continue dialogue with Sikh community regarding the revision of laws around kirpans in state schools.

“We are currently working with community representatives and government agencies to understand how best to support students [and to] meet the needs of their faith while adhering to school safety policies,” Mitchell said.