Legal Mailbag – 10-27-22

By Attorney Thomas B. Mooney, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

The “Legal Mailbag Question of the Week” is a regular feature of the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. We invite readers to submit short, law-related questions of practical concern to school administrators. Each week, we will select a question and publish an answer. While these answers cannot be considered formal legal advice, they may be of help to you and your colleagues. We may edit your questions, and we will not identify the authors.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbagatcasciacdotorg.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

A high school student was searched after having been in the bathroom when there was a smell of marijuana. This student was found not to be carrying any THC products, but rather he was wearing a kirpan, one of the five items that practicing Sikhs are required to wear at all times.

This particular kirpan (dagger) had a blade of almost 6 inches. What is the obligation of the administration in this case? We confiscated the kirpan and followed our discipline code, and we issued ten days of out-of-school suspension and put the student up for expulsion for bringing a weapon to school. We did not pursue an arrest with the school resource officer.

Was this the right way to handle this case? Is there any precedent set for this kind of situation in Connecticut?

Religious Freedom or School Safety?


Dear Safety:

Legal Mailbag thanks you for asking an excellent question. However, Legal Mailbag must begin by offering the observation that this is not an “either/or” situation. Through discussion and compromise, it is possible in this case to provide both for religious freedom and for school safety, as discussed below.

Legal Mailbag notes your description of the “kirpan” as “one of the five items that practicing Sikhs are required to wear at all times.” Given that wearing a kirpan is a requirement of the Sikh religion, school officials must make reasonable accommodation to this religious practice if possible. The obligation for school officials to make such accommodations to religious practices derives from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 3 of Article First of the Connecticut Constitution (“SEC. 3. The exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever be free to all persons in the state; provided, that the right hereby declared and established, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or to justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.”).

This duty to accommodate religious practices has been codified in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-571b, which provides in relevant part:

(b) The state or any political subdivision of the state may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

You will note that any burden placed on religious practice must be “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Accordingly, it was incumbent on your administrative team to inquire further as to whether an accommodation could be reached. Without divulging client confidences, Legal Mailbag understands that your administrative team did just that, and that after writing your letter to Legal Mailbag you were able to find a way to reconcile your concern for school safety with the student’s religious obligation as an initiated Sikh to wear the kirpan on his body.

As described in this Sikhism and the Sikh Kirpan Fact Sheet:

  • A kirpan is a mandatory Sikh article of faith. It is carried by Amritdhari (initiated) Sikhs at all times. The word “kirpan” comes from two Punjabi words: ‘Kirpa’ means an act of kindness, a favor; and ‘Aan’ means honor and self- respect.
  • A kirpan resembles a knife or sword. There is no prescribed length or sharpness for a kirpan in Sikhism; they are determined by the individual religious convictions of the wearer. Kirpans are typically sheathed and worn with a gatra (a strap) underneath clothing.

Given that there is no prescribed length or sharpness for a kirpan that must be worn, there is room for discussion and compromise between school officials and observant Sikh students and their parents. Legal Mailbag is pleased to share with readers that you found that compromise, rescinded the disciplinary action, and reconciled concerns for school safety with the duty to accommodate religious obligations by permitting the student to wear a kirpan that does not pose a threat to the school community.

Finally, as a lifelong learner, Legal Mailbag freely admits to learning a lot through your question and the related situation. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, and observant Sikhs have religious obligations that go beyond the wearing of the kirpan. Faithful readers of Legal Mailbag may also wish to learn more about this religion, and this linked document, Sikhism: An Educator’s Guide, provides for the intellectually curious further helpful information about Sikhism.