© 2004  Karen Selick
One Man’s Religious Symbol is Another Man’s Forbidden Weapon
An edited version of this article first appeared in the June, 2004  issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


One Man’s Religious Symbol is Another Man’s Forbidden Weapon


A contemporary of my husband’s reminisces fondly about his teenaged years, when he would take his rifle to school, prop it up in the corner of his home room and leave it there throughout the day so he could take it to target practice after school. 

If a young man were to do that today, his teachers and fellow students would immediately be dialing 911.  He’d probably face criminal charges, have his rifle confiscated, and be expelled from school. 

Caught up in this complete reversal of public attitudes are students belonging to the Khalsa Sikh religion.  They want to take their kirpans, or ceremonial daggers, to school.  Their religion requires them to wear the kirpan at all times.  However, this violates the “zero tolerance” weapons policy prevailing in modern schools.

The issue has arisen in many states and provinces, including Ontario and B.C.  Usually it has been resolved in favour of the Sikh student.  In March, however, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that a school board was justified under Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in prohibiting 12-year-old Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan in its school.  The boy and his father say they’ll appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Meanwhile, the boy has switched to a private school where he is allowed to carry his kirpan. 

The courts have treated this case as one pitting freedom of religion against public safety.  In my view, this characterization of the issues creates unnecessary confusion and resolves nothing.  If the case is properly viewed as one involving property rights, the knots quickly untangle.

Freedom of religion doesn’t give a person the right to come into my living room and start reciting the Bible or the Koran.  The religious content of his recitation is irrelevant.  What’s important is whether or not I consent to his presence in my home.  My property rights allow me to exclude an outsider for whatever reason I choose, whether he comes to my door with a rifle or a religious tract in hand.  If I refuse him entry, I haven’t violated his freedom of religion.  He’s still free to practice his religion at his own home or wherever another property owner will allow it.  That much is clear.

The confusion arises, as so much confusion does, because the school in the Quebec case is not private property.  It’s owned by the government, theoretically on behalf of everyone in the community.  Kirpan-wearing Sikhs own a share and people who are terrified of anyone carrying a weapon own a share.  Who gets to have his way?

Ultimately, the solution lies not in forcing one group’s preferences down the other’s throat, but rather in unbundling the communal property.  That way, each group can have its own way on property it controls.  There is no trumping of anyone’s rights by a different set of rights, and the conflict dissipates. 

I know, I know—privatizing the public school system seems like a rather drastic solution to this relatively minor problem.  But kirpans are merely one instance of a problem that arises over and over again, namely: who gets to control the use of public property?  The issue has come before the courts and the legislatures in many guises.  Do individuals have the right to plaster posters on municipally owned lamp-posts?  Can they hand out leaflets in airports?  Can squeegee kids ply their trade on the streets?  Can Nazis parade through a Jewish neighbourhood?  The fundamental problem is always the same.  When property is communally owned, someone has to decide how it will be used, and somebody else whose taxes have paid for it will surely feel aggrieved by the decision.  Sooner or later, we must bite the bullet and recognize that communal property doesn’t solve any problems—it is the problem.

Public schools are a particularly interesting case because of their history.  Many early advocates of public schooling promoted it precisely for the purpose of stamping out diversity and molding students into identical little state-controlled drones.  For instance, Benjamin Rush, an eighteenth century physician who helped establish Pennsylvania’s system, wrote: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.”  Or as the U.S. Bureau of Education candidly admitted in 1914, “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual.”  Many similar examples can be found in Sheldon Richman’s book Separating School and State.

Like compound interest, philosophical errors in the early years of a country’s history just keep on multiplying.  If you adopt the premise that citizens are the servants of the state rather than the reverse, you set the stage for perpetual conflict with those who feel other allegiances—perhaps religious or familial—have priority.  If you convince people they’ll be better off letting the state take their money and spend it for them, eventually you’ll have disgruntled factions competing to shanghai the state’s spending power for their benefit.  A country that has made these mistakes should ‘fess up and start over.  It’s just like your mother always told you:  don’t start lying or you’ll have to keep inventing more and bigger lies to cover your tracks.  



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June 20, 2000