Carrying knives in NSW public schools will be banned as the government moves to close a loophole that allows members of the Sikh community to carry ceremonial daggers for religious reasons.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell announced the ban on Tuesday in response to an alleged stabbing at Glenwood High in Sydney’s northwest, in which a teen boy allegedly stabbed another teen with a Kirpan, a ceremonial dagger that baptised Sikhs are required to carry.
But some Sikh leaders say they’re feeling frustrated the ban was imposed without sufficient consultation with their community, as questions are raised about state freedom of religion protections.
Charanjit Singh, from Sikh charity Turbans 4 Australia, said his community is still “in shock”.
“This is an unfortunate incident and this shouldn’t happen. But this ban was imposed without consulting us on how we should be proceeding,” he told SBS News.
The ban will apply from Wednesday to all students, staff and visitors to NSW public schools.
Mr Singh said the Kirpan is one of the Sikh community’s main articles of faith, and that it will be “mentally stressful” for students who are unable to practice this.
He added such a ban will not help to address the “underlying issue” of bullying faced by some Sikh students in schools.
“It could lead to more bullying. Parents have these concerns – they’re having meetings,” he said.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Tuesday that taking a weapon of any description to school was not appropriate.
She had earlier expressed shock over the alleged schoolyard incident and flagged a crackdown, saying “students shouldn’t be allowed to take knives to school under any circumstances”.
Ms Mitchell said allowing knives in schools was not in line with community expectations and the government would be making the legislative change to close the loophole.
“In the interim I’ve also asked the department to send advice out to our schools today updating our policy to say that knives for religious purposes will be banned in government schools,” she told Sydney radio 2GB on Tuesday.
Ms Mitchell had spoken to representatives from the Sikh community about the stabbing and they were distressed, she said.
“We need to act and I think that’s in line with community sentiment and it’s also in line with my responsibilities as minister,” she added.
“I have to make sure that our schools are safe places for our students and staff and that’s why we need to take this action.”
Mr Singh said Turbans 4 Australia was informed about the government’s ban during a meeting on Monday.
“We expressed our regret at this incident and called for an open dialogue to address the issue,” he said.
“But they already had their decision in mind.”
He said the group is open to further dialogue with state authorities.
“We want to proceed with how to make it safe for everyone and to practice our religion as well,” he said.
Ms Berejiklian said the government had discussed “symbols or other equivalent gestures” that could replace the blade.
“We appreciate the significance and importance of carrying through with one’s faith … we think there’ll be a compromise that all of us can live with moving forward.”
‘The state has a free hand’
Professor George Williams, a legal expert from the University of NSW, said the state government has no legal constraints around restricting a person’s religious observance.
“That’s because the constitution does not require them to respect freedom of religion, and the state has a free hand,” he told SBS News, adding the state “could go further if it wanted to”.
“There really are no effective limits on what NSW can do should it decide to ban other religious practices. There’s no protection for freedom of religion at the state level,” he said.
“It’s a matter of restraint, common sense and good judgement – it’s not a matter of there being legal limits.”