The Kirpan and the Seax

In my last blog posting I talked about experience at the Green Bay Area Public School board. There, I spoke about our nation’s fundamental law and its ideals of individual liberty, equality before the law and government, or equal treatment, and religious neutrality. That argument should have carried the day. But it didn’t. The school board voted to continue a policy that does serious violence to the free speech rights of students, as well as allow building administrators the discretion to continue a conditional ban on head coverings. The policy did get one thing right, namely ending sex discrimination in attire, but it got everything else wrong. By failing to take the matter of head coverings out of the hands of administrators, the school board gave administrators permission to violate the civil rights of students. In other words, the board did not protect the rights of individuals.

My sons’ mother is Swedish. She was raised in Sweden and moved to the United States in adulthood. Both of my sons are proud of their Scandinavian heritage. All members of my family wear a Mjölnir pendant, which is the Norse god Thor’s stylized hammer. We also own a seax, or Viking dagger, which was universally carried by Scandinavian males. I could not bring my seax to show board members because knives are not allowed in public buildings. I agree with this policy, which I will explain in a moment. But I want to first emphasize that, although we are a family of secular humanists, we find Scandinavian culture and Norse mythology important to our family’s cultural heritage and we observe many Scandinavian traditions and frequently return to my wife’s motherland to imbibe in those rich traditions. 

Seax

My son would not be allowed to bring his seax, a dagger, to school. I do not think he or any other boy should be allowed to bring a dagger to school because we cannot know in advance who may suffer from an antisocial personality disorder or impulse control problems, may be prone to fits of jealous rage, or perceive a need to use a weapon in self-defense or in retaliation to some offense. Because we cannot know this, and because the consequences of a boy using a dagger to harm other students is so great, the school exercises prior restraint in the same way that TSA does not allow knives on airplanes. Instead of waiting until someone uses a weapon on someone else, we recognize the possibility of such an occurrence, and act in a general way to reduce the risk to public safety. This is reasonable. Since we have no way of rationally determining who is safe with a knife, we treat everybody the same. As such, this policy is nondiscriminatory.

There is a way to rationalize differential control by appeal to aggregate statistics. For example, an institution might note group differences in the rates of violence. For example, white males, compared to black males, have a significantly lower rate of violence. Moreover, white males have cultural experiences with knives that differ from the cultural experiences of black males. However, it would be discriminatory to create a policy that forbade the carrying of knives by black students while allowing white students to carry them. I hope the reason why is obvious to you, but to make sure, it is discriminatory because the institution is prejudging concrete individuals based on patterns identified in statistical aggregates. As impressive as numbers can be, the presentation of statistical information does not change the reality that making judgments about individuals based on a characteristics such as skin color is stereotyping.

In October of 2014, administrators at a Washington state school district decided to let a Sikh boy carry a kirpan on school property. A kirpan is a dagger, similar to my son’s seax. Both are impressive and serious weapons. Sikhs have five articles of faith, the five Ks and the kirpan is one of them. All baptized male Sikhs are expected to carry one. But knives are dangerous weapons. We do not allow them on airplanes. We do not allow students to carry them in school. So why is this school district allowing the Sikh boy to carry a dagger? Because it is an article of faith, a religious accommodation must be made. But according to the foundational law of the American republic, government is obliged to remain neutral on questions of religion. It cannot discriminate on this basis, which means it can neither grant privileges nor restrict freedom based on religious reasons. Reasons for limiting freedom must be based on rational secular grounds.

Kirpan

The decision to ban the carrying of knives in public school buildings is based on a concern for student safety, which is a rational justification. An exemption from the rule for Sikhs is based on not on rational secular grounds, but on the grounds of religious identity. This is irrational, since the claim is that, on the basis of religious identity, we assume that all the reasons knives represent a public safety hazard do not apply to Sikhs. Without any evidence, Sikhs are assumed to not suffer from antisocial personality disorder or impulse control problems, are not prone to fits of jealous rage, never perceive a need to use a weapon in self-defense or in retaliation to some offense—or if they do have a reason to defend themselves are allowed to use an effective weapon in that defense, whereas other boys are left only to use their fists or their words. On what rational basis can administrators know that Sikh boys are immune from all the things non-Sikh boys are assumed to be capable of? Administrators are prejudging an entire group of people based on their religious identity. Administrators are saying to my son that he cannot be trusted with a dagger based on his identity. Because is not Sikh he cannot be cleared of the possibility that he may suffer from antisocial personality disorder or any of these others things. 

My son would not be allowed to carry a knife in school because of his identity. It would be exactly the same as saying that my son cannot carry a dagger to school because of his race. Of course, race and religion are different. Race doesn’t carry an ideology. Religion is an ideology. One can tell nothing about an individual’s motives and behavioral proclivities on the basis of skin color. Religion is a source of motives and habits. But from a civil rights standpoint, the government is obliged to treat members of different races and different religions in a neutral manner. The government cannot discriminate on the basis of race or religion or national origin. Either everybody can carry knife or nobody can. My son’s liberty is violated because he is not regarded equally before the law. Rather his group membership is judged to make him unworthy of access to a freedom or resource that another boy is allowed access to on the basis of his membership. This is discrimination.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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