Central Unified School District is considering officially letting Sikh students wear a small blade called the kirpan, one of the five symbols of the Sikh faith, while they are in school.
The trustees are scheduled to consider the new policy at Tuesday’s meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m.
State law prohibits anyone from having weapons, including a knife with a blade of more than 2 1/2 inches, while on school grounds, but school districts can enact exceptions.
Under Central Unified’s proposed policy, the blade of students’ kirpans must be dull and no longer than 3 1/2 inches, and 6 inches total including the sheath. It must be tightly and securely sewn into a strap that for students would wear under their clothing so that it is not readily seen.
The proposed policy bars students from drawing their kirpan from its sheath and brandishing it or using it aggressively.
Any violation of the policy could result in student discipline, but the policy also commits the district to protecting students wearing kirpans from harassment by other students.
Sikh Community Is Large in Central District
The policy notes that Sikh students are a “significant” portion of the district’s enrollment and says the goal is to make school sites “a welcoming place for all.”
Trustee Naindeep Singh Chann, who is Sikh, could not be reached for comment.
The policy is being proposed now because the district wants to acknowledge the religious practices of the Sikh faith, district spokeswoman Sonja Dost said.
“Central Unified has always accommodated religious practices consistent with applicable law, such as the wearing of a kirpan,” she said. “The kirpan is not considered to be a weapon, but rather serves as an artifact to symbolize the Sikh faith.”
Religious Freedom Is at Stake
Rajdeep Sandhu, a member of the Sikh Institute of Fresno, said the policy change would mark an achievement for the Sikh community to win wider recognition of its religious symbols and the right to freedom of religion guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
“This marks another step toward our religious freedom,” he said. “It’s an accomplishment for the whole community.”
Students who are baptized in the Sikh faith have committed to wearing the five symbols of the faith — “kes” (long hair), “kangha” (comb), “kachch” (sacred underwear), “kara” (steel bracelet), and a “kirpan” (ceremonial knife).
Not all Sikhs are baptized and have made that commitment to the five Ks, Sandhu said.
Kirpans Allowed by Other California Districts
Central Unified would not be the only school district in California that allow kirpans in recognition of students’ freedom of religion rights.
In the 1990s, the Livingston Union School District in Merced County barred three Sikh siblings who wore kirpans to school, sparking a lawsuit. The district had argued that its ban of kirpans, and other weapons, was designed to keep students safe on campus.
The district appealed a Superior Court ruling that required school officials to accommodate the siblings under the federal Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993, and the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court decision.
The appellate court noted that districts in Yuba City and Live Oak, which have significant Sikh populations, had developed policies to accommodate the wearing of kirpans by Sikh students at school, including setting limits on the length of the blade.