Pointed comments on the kirpan: "above all a religious symbol"

My colleague Colby Cosh says I was “sowing nonsense” when I wrote that the Supreme Court of Canada “found that the kirpan is a religious symbol, not a weapon.” He says the court found no such thing.

Here’s what Justice Louise Charron said in that 2006 decision on the question of whether she regarded the kirpan as a weapon or as a religious symbol, in the dispute between a Montréal school board and a Sikh student:

“Much of the [school board’s] argument is based on its submission that ‘the kirpan is essentially a dagger, a weapon designed to kill, intimidate or threaten others’.  With respect, while the kirpan undeniably has characteristics of a bladed weapon capable of wounding or killing a person, this submission disregards the fact that, for orthodox Sikhs, the kirpan is above all a religious symbol.”

After that, as I read her, Charron considers the kirpan throughout as as symbol rather than a weapon. On claims that the kirpan is “by its true nature, a weapon,” the judge writes, “These assertions strip the kirpan of any religious significance and leave no room for accommodation.”

She touches on analogous arguments about whether Muslim girls should be allowed to cover their heads for religious reasons if other students aren’t allowed to wear hats in class to look cool.

“To equate a religious obligation,” Charron writes, “such as wearing the chador with the desire of certain students to wear caps is indicative of a simplistic view of freedom of religion that is incompatible with the Canadian Charter.”

To say, then, of a Muslim’s traditional headwear, “It’s a hat,” would be to offer definition empty of significance, even if not literally wrong. Similarly, to declare of the kirpan, “It’s a knife,” is as accurate as it is meaningless.

What the judge was driving at, I’d say, is what the kirpan is “essentially” or “above all” or in its “true nature.” So, Colby, I’ll give you this much: It would have been more precise for me to add a couple of adjectives, and say that the court found that the kirpan is above all a religious symbol, and not essentially a weapon.

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