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Sikh student acquitted of charges of carrying kirpan

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
December 05, 2005 09:35 IST
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A 23-year-old Wayne State University student, who was arrested for carrying a kirpan, or a small knife on the university campus under the Detroit Knife Act has been acquitted of all charges thanks to United Sikhs and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sukhpreet Singh was arrested August 24, 2005, after two police officers asked him to either remove his kirpan or face arrest. Singh explained to the officers that the kirpan was a mandatory article of his Sikh faith and that he could not remove it. The Detroit City Police officers arrested and pressed charges for violating the Knife Ordinance Code. Singh was released on bond, without his kirpan.

According to Harpreet Singh, legal director of United Sikhs, who announced the acquittal of Singh on Sunday, Mike Gibbs, attorney retained by the non-profit organisation, and ACLU had submitted to the court and the prosecutor that the Detroit Knife Ordinance is unconstitutional in its application to the kirpan.

An amicus brief was prepared jointly by United Sikhs, Gibbs and ACLU, which said that the Detroit Knife Ordinance violates the freedom of religion clause of the Michigan Constitution.

"We had argued to the court and prosecutor that the kirpan, a scimitar in a sheath, is not a weapon and should not be viewed as one. United Sikhs had submitted a memorandum to the prosecution and the judge arguing for the right to wear a kirpan," Harpreet Singh said.

"The difficulty in this case was overcoming the tendency of prosecutors and police to view possession of the kirpan as a criminal offence. I think the key to success for this issue is to educate the courts, prosecutors, police officers, and community leaders about the Sikh Articles of Faith," Gibbs said.

"The wearing of the kirpan should be respected by all persons. Educating our communities will go a long way towards achieving its acceptance," Gibb said. "When appropriate, as it was in this case, we can bring a constitutional challenge to an ordinance, which burdens the free exercise of religion. It's very rewarding when we make great progress in cases like this. It was especially nice to see the kirpan returned to Singh," Gibbs said adding, "We couldn't have achieved such a great outcome without the tremendous support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and United Sikhs.'

Harpreet Singh praised the city of Detroit for acting in a reasonable manner by dropping this case in realising that Sikh Americans should not be denied their constitutional right to freely practice their religion. "We will continue to work in stages with the Wayne State University, the city of Detroit, the Wayne County and the State of Michigan, to establish a best practice for dealing with Sikhs wearing a kirpan," he added.

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York