It’s difficult not to despair sometimes when confronting some of the excesses of the zero tolerance crowd in the nation’s schools: the toddler sent home for pointing in a way that made his fingers look like a gun, and all the rest.
Nevertheless, the news contained in this report produced by the Becket Fund, a group named, tellingly enough after a defender of priestly legal privilege, ought to give to rise to a degree of concern:
Amandeep Singh, a ninth-grade honor student in New York, was reprimanded and suspended indefinitely for wearing a kirpan—a ceremonial religious item worn by members of the Sikh faith—to school.
Amandeep became a baptized Sikh at age eight, requiring him, like 20 million other Sikhs worldwide, to follow the five Sikh articles of faith. The best known of these is the requirement to wear hair uncut in a turban. Another requirement is the kirpan, an item shaped like a sword that reminds Sikhs of their duty to speak out against injustice and stand up for the defenseless. In deference to school security concerns, school-age children like Amandeep typically wear a very small, blunt kirpan that cannot be used to harm anyone.
For over seven years, Amandeep attended local public schools and continuously observed all five articles of his faith, including the wearing of the kirpan, without any incident. Many of his teachers were aware of his kirpan and specifically commended him for his dedication to his faith. None ever told him that his kirpan–which was duller than a butter knife and secured underneath his clothes–posed any sort of danger.
Without explanation, school officials suddenly reversed course in February 2005 and declared Amandeep’s kirpan to be a prohibited “weapon.” Moreover, they refused to allow him to set foot on school grounds unless he abandoned his article of faith. At that point, Amandeep retained The Becket Fund to protect his religious freedom.
The Becket Fund intervened on Amandeep’s behalf, meeting with school district officials to explain the kirpan’s religious significance and Amandeep’s rights under the First Amendment. The district quickly changed course, agreeing to allow Amandeep to continue his education without compromising his faith.
This was a victory not only for Amandeep and other Sikhs, but also for free religious exercise in public schools. The district’s actions were “evidence of religious discrimination,” Jared Leland, media and legal counsel for Becket, told the Journal News . “He was really being forced to choose between attending a public school and practicing his faith, and that’s something that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”
Now, I have no problem with the idea allowing a Sikh child—or any other child—to wear a safe, very small, very blunted and entirely symbolic sword under their clothes at school. The school’s security policy should never have been so narrow as to ban it. But to permit this exception purely on the grounds of religious belief is more troubling, not particularly in itself (Amandeep’s kirpan seems completely harmless), but for the precedent it may set. What other school rules or procedures could children be exempted from in future purely because compliance with those rules or procedures contravened a possibly less benign aspect of one or another creed?
A generous and broad assertion of the principle of freedom of religion is something that makes America America, and rightly so, but so too is the notion of equality before the law, and, for that matter, something else too. How to put it? Well, this will do: E pluribus unum.
There has to be unum as well, so to speak, as pluribus