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Accelerating Student Learning and Motivation in Your U.S. History Classroom

You Be the Judge - Kirpans and Free Exercise

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Gurbaj Multani
quebec_kirpan.jpg
17 year-old Sikh student at the center of the Kirpan Supreme Court ruling, Montreal, Quebec.

kirpan.jpg
As discussed in our seminar, You Be The Judge is an excellent strategy for students to get an authentic view of how the Supreme Court rules.  Remember the lesson differentiates between Free Exercise and the Establishment Clause.  For Free Exercise, the three questions asked are:
 

a.       Has the religious freedom of a person been infringed or burdened by some government action?  (If the answer is no, then the law is constitutional.  If the answer is yes, then the second question must be asked)

b.      If so, is there a “compelling state interest” that would nonetheless justify the government action?  (If the answer is yes, then the law is constitutional.  If the answer is no, then the third question must be asked)

c.       Finally, is there any other way the government can be satisfied without restricting religious liberty?  (If the answer is no, then the law is constitutional.  If the answer is yes, then the law is unconstitutional)

 
These are difficult questions for students to answer.  In the seminar I discussed a case that may make it easier for students to understand "compelling state interest", and "government can be satisfied".  Below you'll find my summary of the case, and the link to the case itself.
 

Gurdev Kaur Cheema v. Harold Thompson, 67 F. 3d 883 (9th Cir. 1995)

 
Background
Three young Sikh children stood at the center of this controversy: Rajinder, Sukhjinder, and Jaspreet Cheema attended school in the Livingston Unified School District (CA).
 
A central tenet of their religion requires them to wear at all times five symbols of their faith: "kes" (long hair), "kangha" (comb), "kachch" (sacred underwear), "kara" (steel bracelet), and a "kirpan" (A kirpan has a curved, steel blade and is worn in a sheath held to the body by a leather strap. The kirpans at issue here are roughly the size of an open Swiss Army knife, about 6-7 inches long with a blade of roughly 3 1/2 inches).
 
This case began when the school district refused to allow the children to wear kirpans to school.
 
The 9th Circuit Court in their ruling decided:
 
1.  Indeed, the school district had a "compelling interest" - school safety
2.  However, the court then went on to state that the district HAD NOT searched for other ways for the govenrmenet to be satisfied.  They used the terms "least restrictive".  The court cited that other school districts had found accomadation with the Sikh community.  Therefore, the 9th circuit, remanded the district court to find a less restrictive ruling - a ruling that could satisfy the compelling interest of school safety, but also satisfy the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution.
3.  The District Court ordered Livingston Unified School District to adopt the following standards:

1) the kirpan will be of the type demonstrated to the Board and to the District Court, that is: a dull blade, approximately 3 - 3 1/2 inches in length with a total length of approximately 6 1/2 - 7 inches including its sheath;

2) the kirpan will be sewn tightly to its sheath;

3) the kirpan will be worn on a cloth strap under the children's clothing so that it is not readily visible;

4) a designated official of the District may make reasonable inspections to confirm that the conditions specified about are being adhered to;

5) if any of the conditions specified above are violated, the student's privilege of wearing his or her kirpan may be suspended; and

6) the District will take all reasonable steps to prevent any harassment, intimidation or provocation of [**9] the Cheema children by any employee or student in the District and will take appropriate disciplinary action to prevent and redress such action, should it occur.

For an excellent discussion of the stages of this case go to:

The Sikh Coalition