The Supreme Court of Canada has held that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects a Montreal teenager’s right to carry his kirpan at school. A kirpan is a religious object that resembles a dagger.
The student’s school board had initially offered to allow him to carry the kirpan if he complied with certain conditions to ensure it remained sealed within his clothing. The student and his parents agreed to this arrangement.
However, the school board subsequently reversed its decision on the basis that the school’s code of conduct prohibited the carrying of weapons. The school board’s council of commissioners upheld the decision and advised the student that he could only wear a symbolic kirpan that was made of harmless material. The student and his parents challenged the decision and the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately heard the case.
The majority of the court held that the commissioners’ decision violated the student’s freedom of religion under the Charter and, further, that the violation could not be justified under section 1 of the Charter. While the court acknowledged that the council’s decision was motivated by a pressing and substantial objective, namely, to ensure a reasonable level of safety at the school, it held that the decision did not minimally impair the student’s rights.
In the opinion of the court, allowing the student to wear his kirpan under certain conditions (such as those previously agreed to) would minimally impair the student’s rights and demonstrate the importance society attaches to protecting freedom of religion.
The court’s decision also clarified the issue of whether the Charter applies to school boards. The majority of the court held that rules made by school boards are subject to Charter scrutiny, as are the decisions of school boards when they apply those rules or exercise statutory authority.
Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6