Are employers obliged to let Sikh employees wear a kirpan under their clothing while at work?
A kirpan is a small replica sword worn around the waist under the clothes. It represents one of the five articles of faith that devout Sikhs must always wear, and which distinguish them as Sikhs. It is regarded as a ceremonial item, not a weapon of aggression, and symbolises readiness to fight oppression.
In implementing a dress code, it may be indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of religion or belief for employers to prohibit the carrying of weapons, blades or sharp objects, as this would put Sikhs at a disadvantage in that it would prevent them observing their particular religious requirements. Wherever possible, where an employee's religion requires him or her to observe a particular dress code, such as the wearing of a kirpan, this should be respected by the employer. However, this must be balanced against health and safety and security considerations, and a prohibition on kirpans may well be shown to be a proportionate and reasonable means of achieving a legitimate aim. If employers prohibit the wearing of kirpans at work, they must be able to justify the prohibition as a proportionate response on the grounds of health and safety, security or some other legitimate business aim. Unjustifiable policies and rules are likely to constitute indirect religious discrimination.
As far as the criminal law is concerned, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence for a person in a public place to have a bladed or sharply pointed article - other than a small folding pocket knife - without good reason. The onus is on the knife carrier to show that he or she has a good reason for carrying it. However, the Act exempts Sikhs wearing kirpans from criminal prosecution on the grounds that the kirpan is a religious article.