Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century. Introduction

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Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century.

As Sikhs we are concerned with direct and indirect restriction being placed on the practice of religion. These concerns are mainly from the aspect of religious discrimination focused on the Sikh identity.
The Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria Inc. (SICV) is an incorporated organization with a vision to create greater awareness and understanding of Sikhs and Sikhism in Victoria. SICV promotes and works for dialogue, respect and understanding among all religions. Its objectives include:

  1. Sharing information about the Sikh faith on matters with the wider Australian community.

  2. Making representation on matters affecting the Sikh faith:

  3. Contributing Sikh perspectives to issues of common human concern: and

  4. Promoting a culture of peace and harmony within multicultural Victoria.

Sikhs believe in one loving Creator of all. Sikhism does not recognize any racial class or other earthly distinctions. Sikhism recognizes complete equality between women and men in all spheres of life. Sikhs respect all religions and are always keen in promoting tolerance, understanding and work towards building a harmonious society. Sikhs have a strong sense of justice and fairness. For over five centuries Sikhs have made great sacrifices for religious freedom and practice not only for themselves but for other religions as well. Sikhs are law abiding citizens and residents. Their identity is very important to them. They should have freedom to practice their faith without any hindrance.
For Sikhs there are two areas of concern regarding the freedom to practice and express their faith and beliefs.

1. Misrepresentation. Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims (due to their external form) and with Hindus (due to their philosophical basis). But Sikhs have a different identity from Hindus or Muslims. They are a separate racial group. This has been legally established by the House of Lords in the United Kingdom in 1983 in Mandla and another v. Dowell lee and another. All E R 1062.

2. Impediments to practice of faith. Sikhs face societal and legal impediment to the practice of their faith. This is particularly due to their distinct identity mandated by religion. They are required to wear at all times five articles. These articles are:

    • Kesh unshorn hair usually tied up as knot and crowned with a turban or ‘Patka’ requirement .not shaving of facial hair or from any part of the body.

    • Kanga a small comb.

    • Kara a steel bracelet worn on the wrist.

    • Kachhara prescribed shorts worn as an undergarment.

    • Kirpan small sheathed sword.

At the moment as law abiding Australian citizens Sikhs are not getting adequate legal protection to practice their faith freely. If there is any, it is not uniformly enforceable throughout Australia. Religion being a non-negotiable matter some uniformity of legal protection is essential.
Section 116 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia does not explicitly state the right to practice any religion. It only expresses the legal position of the Commonwealth in preventing it from making into law a certain observance. It does not negate or express unlawful activities by non-government agencies which may resort to coercion, exploitation, forced conversion, discrimination on grounds of faith groupings.
In an egalitarian society like Australia, the government should hear the voice of the majority but it cannot do so by constricting or ignoring the minority.
The government must be seen to be fair and be fair in fact to all its citizens. It has a responsibility to run a clean and fair society. The task of the government is to protect the freedom to practice one’s faith be it a majority or a minority faith. Therefore legislation must protect the rights of every Australian including the minority.
Freedom of outward expressions of faith, the wearing of particular dress or its form (e.g. a Sikh wearing a turban or a kirpan) should be legally protected as a personal right of the person practicing the faith.
Over the last decade the world position has changed. There has been a hardened attitude towards legitimate pursuit of minority religions for no reason. Many minority religions are often under pressure from majority communities to conform to majority prevalent cultures due to ignorance or due to the attitude that theirs is the only way.
Since September 11 changes in security laws have affected the Sikh community adversely. The laws promote the exclusion of Sikhs from main stream society. They face a challenge on a daily basis to adhere to their faith. Frequently a Sikh is arbitrarily forced to choose between obedience to his/her religious beliefs and keeping a job or being involved in civic or public activities. Sikhs are often asked to justify the wearing of their articles of faith. Such questioning sometimes belittles their faith.
Listed below are some examples of coercion, indirect discrimination, exclusion and harassment of Sikhs because of their compliance with their religious code.

  • Faith based schools have insisted that Sikh children in compliance with school uniform policy not wear their articles of faith e.g. the kara (steel bracelet); turban or ‘patka’ and to be clean shaven. The current scenario of France and some other countries of declaring a particular form of clothing as unacceptable in schools etc is totally unjust. In the 21st century such an implementation is totally against our cherished ideals of democracy, human rights and equality among humanity. In Australia some faith schools are resorting to coercion and are forcing Sikh children to cut their hair and not wear their turban or patka in accordance with school majority community norms.

  • Some colleges have denied Sikh students entry to classrooms or to the examination centre unless they remove their kirpan placing them in a difficult situation of having to choose between obedience to their faith or gaining an education.

Social Events

  • Sporting activities and venues. A youth was excluded from a soccer team because of his Kara.

  • A minister of religion was denied entry to the games village during the Commonwealth games thus preventing the provision of spiritual comfort and chaplaincy services to Sikh athletes.

  • Sikhs wearing a kirpan were excluded from games venues and other venues during major events.

  • Public buildings. Sikhs wearing a kirpan are prohibited from entry to buildings such as the Parliament House, the Courts or visiting patients at some hospitals unless they hand over the kirpan. A courier could not gain entry to make a delivery at the Children’s Court.

At Work

  • An employee had to sign a statement under duress that she would not wear her kirpan to work and would be sacked if seen with the article of faith on company premises.


  • A Sikh truck driver was not able to unload the contents of his truck at a construction site because he was wearing a turban and not a helmet

  • Many Sikhs do not ride a motorcycle or bicycle because of the requirement of a hard hat. In the United Kingdom there is clear legislation to allow compliance with their religious requirements e.g. the Employment Act of 1989 prevents discrimination against Sikhs by granting exemption from hard hat requirements and the Road Traffic Act 1988 grants exemptions to Sikhs from wearing a helmet while on a motor cycle.

It is abundantly clear that Sikhs require legislative protection for the freedom of religion and belief. There is some existing legislation in Australian States but it is inadequate and not uniform. A practice of religion is the same everywhere so a uniform Australian legislation is required for this purpose.


1. Legislation should make it clear that Sikh articles of faith are sacrosanct just like the article or symbols of any other religion.

2. Legislation that causes indirect discrimination ought to be amended for example the Major Event (Crowd Management) Act 2003 in Victoria.
Sikhs should not have to seek permission every time they need access to civic or public place to wear their articles of faith.

3. Legislation to health and safety regulations should require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice or observance.

Our concern is that there is a growing community perception that the practice of Sikhism may pose a threat to health and safety. The Sikh religion was founded in the fifteenth century. It is a peaceful religion. The Sikh articles of faith have withstood the test of time and do not pose any threat to any individual or community or society at large. It is the duty of security agencies to ensure that Sikhs are treated fairly and are not victims in the campaign for a safe society.
The Sikh articles of faith are never used to harm any one. They are worn for religious observance. This has been recognized around the world. For example British Law recognizes the wearing of the Sikh articles of faith as rights of a Sikh to manifest his religion. In Canada the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that banning any Sikh article of faith is against the Charter of Human Rights. Several Canadian Provinces have accepted the Sikh Articles of faith by proclamation.
Community Consultation and Awareness

It is essential that those who draft the legislation have an adequate working knowledge of minority religious beliefs and practices. It is preferable they seek advice from religious authorities. The highest Sikh religious authority is the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (Supreme Committee managing Sikh Gurdwaras) in India. Government bodies managing religious affairs should have co-opted members from all minority faiths.

Minority groups do not have the ability or the capacity to take up issues of concern The Sikh community has limited means or resources to challenge the discriminations or violations of human rights. The government has been funding a lot of projects to bring about an understanding between the world of Islam and western cultures. It could perhaps also consider the plight of the Sikhs who face a backlash from the fear of terrorism.
Religious, spiritual and civil society organizations have a role to give correct information and its dissemination to the masses and also to speak out against unfairness or injustices.
The Government, NGO’s, and Human Rights Commission all have a duty to disseminate correct information about minority communities such as the Sikhs. Australia now has a growing, vibrant and socially responsible Sikh community and their religious beliefs, need to be accommodated and respected living so as to enable harmonious living.
Religious holy days

Public holidays for significant religious days help in creating awareness and gives recognition to a religion. Sikhs should be able to take a day off from work to celebrate at least two of their main religious days e.g. Birthday of Guru Nanak (the founder of the religion) and Vaisakhi the birthday of the Khalsa the most important occasion in the Sikh calendar.

Interfaith Organizations

In responding to issues of freedom of religion and belief, interfaith organizations must exist and flourish. Organizations like the Parliament of Worlds’ Religions; Religions for Peace should be supported. Interfaith organization like the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations must be strengthened.

There should be programs at the grass roots level educating our younger generation about the values of religious tolerance and appreciation of our differences. State schools should have a zero tolerance code for bullying/picking on of young children based on their religious or cultural backgrounds.
Human Rights Charter

A human rights charter will definitely help in promoting freedom of religion and belief.

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