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Sikh challenges concealed-weapon prosecution on religious-liberty grounds

By The Associated Press
09.20.99

MENTOR, Ohio — A prosecutor says he's willing to drop a concealed weapons charge if a Sikh priest can demonstrate that he is required by his religion to carry a 6-inch knife.

Ron Graham, city prosecutor in this Cleveland suburb, said on Sept. 17 that he is unsure whether the arrest and the confiscation of the knife — called a kirpan — violated the religious beliefs of Gurbachan Singh Bhatia, 69.

"I'm aware at arraignment they brought that up as defense," Graham said. "I'll take a look at that. If it's for a religious purpose, then maybe we'll release the case."

Although state law does not allow for exceptions, "We don't want to prosecute anyone for exercising religious freedom," Graham said.

Police Chief Richard Amiott said his officers acted properly in enforcing the law banning concealed weapons. "How can you describe for me the difference between a ceremonial knife and any knife?" he asked.

Bhatia could not be reached for comment. No one answered the phone at his home.

However, he told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, through an interpreter, that tears now mix with prayer in his three hours of daily reading of Sikh scripture. He said he hopes God will forgive him for breaking his vow to always wear the kirpan.

Recalling his arrest, he said: "I said, 'That is a kirpan, and in my religion I am allowed to wear this.' He (a police officer) said, 'No, that is a concealed weapon.' "

When he was baptized a Sikh in India, Bhatia made a vow that he would always wear a kirpan, symbolizing his willingness to defend the faith. The Cleveland resident said he has kept the vow for 20 years.

Shortly after midnight Sept. 3, Bhatia was returning from a religious ceremony blessing the new home of a Sikh family when he stopped at a light. Thinking he had gone too far into the intersection, he backed up, and his car bumped the car behind him.

No one was hurt, but as Bhatia apologized to the occupants of the other car, a passenger noticed that he seemed to have a bulge under his shirt and pointed it out to police officers. The knife was discovered, and Bhatia was arrested.

He must appear in Mentor Municipal Court Oct. 4 for a pretrial hearing. If convicted, he could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Bhatia's lawyer, Laura DePledge, a Lake County public defender, said she is still determining how best to defend Bhatia. She would not comment further.

In a similar case in Cincinnati in 1996, the 1st Ohio District Court of Appeals overturned a municipal court conviction of a Sikh man for carrying a concealed weapon.

"To be a Sikh is to wear a kirpan — it is that simple. It is a religious symbol and in no way a weapon," Judge Mark Painter wrote.


Related

Sikhs forced to remove turbans at airport security gates

FAA says people should not be asked to remove head coverings if nothing has been detected by metal detectors. 11.05.01

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