Press Release

New York public school revokes suspension of Sikh student Becket helps broker settlement allowing kirpan

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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For peacefully observing the commands of his Sikh faith, fifteen-year-old Amandeep Singh was suspended for eight school days last month from his school in the Greenburgh Central School District in Westchester County, New York. Despite the ninth-grade honor student’s exemplary academic and disciplinary records, Principal Michael Chambless initially determined that Amandeep’s kirpan, an element of Sikh religious expression, was a “weapon” and suspended him. Today, after Becket intervened in his case, Amandeep received a letter from School Superintendent Josephine Moffett expunging his record of the suspension and allowing him to wear his kirpan at school.

Becket–an international, interfaith, public- interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions–worked with the international civil rights organization United Sikhs to convince the school to obey the requirements of the First Amendment and allow the kirpan.

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 Becket to protect his religious freedom.

“The school’s initial approach of suspending Amandeep until he stopped wearing the kirpan would effectively ban all baptized Sikhs from attending New York public schools,” observed Becket Director of Litigation Derek L. Gaubatz. “Such a ban would have been especially unfortunate because schools do allow students to handle numerous items much more dangerous than a kirpan such as scissors, mathematical compasses, screwdrivers, and baseball bats. Moreover, a recent Canadian study revealed that there has never been a single reported incident of kirpan-related violence in any North American school.”

On February 16, Becket and United Sikh lawyers met with School District officials to explain the religious significance of the kirpan and Amandeep’s rights under the First Amendment. The parties quickly reached an agreement that both protects the religious freedom of Amandeep (and other Sikh students) and addresses school safety concerns.

Amandeep agreed to wear a smaller kirpan of two inches in length that would be securely fastened under his clothes in a cloth pouch. He also agreed to allow school officials to make reasonable inspections to confirm his adherence to the conditions. The school agreed to expunge Amandeep’s record of the suspension and to ensure that no disciplinary action remains on his record. Today, Superintendent Josephine Moffett gave her final approval to the agreement.

“It’s a shame that a student, rather than the school, had to deliver a lesson on respecting the values of the Free Exercise Clause,” said Gaubatz. “But we applaud the school for eventually recognizing that sensible school policies that protect student safety need not–and must not, consistent with the First Amendment–compromise the religious beliefs of their students.”