THE Belgian Conseil d’Etat has upheld the freedom of religion of Sikh students by overturning the ban on the Sikh turban in a GO school, which is part of a large group of schools attended by many Sikh students in the Flemish part of Belgium.
Sharanjit Singh, 13, was forced to remove his patka to attend a Belgian school for the past one year.
“In a landmark decision dated October 14, which was communicated to us yesterday, the Highest Administrative Court has held that GO has the obligation to organise its education without harming the respect for diversity and plurality,” said Mejindarpal Kaur, International Legal Director of United Sikhs, an international advocacy NGO that has led the legal campaign to reverse the ban on the Sikh turban.
Sharanjit Singh, then a 12-year-old, brought an action in September 2013 against his GO school for forcing him to remove his patka (a head covering worn by young Sikhs), which he is mandated to wear, at all times, as an integral part of his Sikh faith.
“Sharanjit is a rather shy boy, afraid of doing things wrong or being excluded. Following the ban he took off his patka very much to his distress. I am very happy that the Conseil d’Etat has overturned the ban and I hope my son will be able to put the past year behind him and look ahead to a good future ,” Sharanjit Singh’s father, Surjit Singh, said.
You may watch a short video interview in Panjabi, with Belgian Sikh boys affected by the past year’s ban, at www.youtube.com/unitedsikhstv
“The Conseil d’Etat has claimed, in essence, that a school cannot simply impose a ban on wearing outward symbols of religious belief without having grounds for doing so (such as disturbing the peace, proselytising, etc.). If a school nevertheless does this, it represents an excessive breach of the internationally protected fundamental right to religious freedom (art. 9 ECHR),” said Pieter Lagae, Sharanjit’s lawyer, of the law firm of Van Steenbrugge & partners in Merelbeke.
In the decision, the court emphasised repeatedly that Sharanjit, and by extension, Sikh students, had never displayed any such negative behaviour. Lagae, who also represents 10-year-old Sukhjot Singh, who was forced to leave another GO school because he refused to remove his patka, expects a positive decision in his case too.
“We are grateful to all those who faithfully supported us and to the Conseil d’Etat for making this robust decision,” said Amarjit Kaur, the President of United Sikhs-Belgium.
Unide Sikhs and the Belgian Sikh Sangat have, since 2006, equally paid approximately £67,000 / US$103,00 for legal fees, translation costs and other expenses for fighting the Belgian turban ban.
United Sikhs thanked its lawyers, supporters, volunteers and directors for the hard earned legal victories.