John Leo

Though Florida has a Religious Restoration Act that protects the rights of religious objectors, Ms. Freeman's argument is unlikely to prevail. In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court tilted narrowly but decisively against exemptions. In a 5-4 decision in 1992, the court ruled against two men penalized for religious use of peyote. In effect, says constitutional scholar Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the court ruled that "except for laws directed exclusively or discriminatorily at religious beliefs and practices, free exercise (of religion) claims deserve no serious judicial consideration at all."

The following year, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, intending to trump the court. But the court had the last word, declaring the act unconstitutional and leaving the anti-exemption ruling in place.

A number of religion-based challenges to dress codes and safety rules are working their way through the courts. Should schools that maintain a zero-tolerance policy on weapons allow an exception for the ceremonial curved dagger that Sikh males, including schoolboys, must wear at all times? Many U.S. and Canadian schools quietly allow the daggers, but the province of Quebec has raised a legal challenge, citing 12-year-old Gurbaj Singh, who has worn his dagger since he was 5.

A court ruled that Singh could keep wearing it in school as long as it is securely enclosed in a wooden sheath, tied shut and worn under his shirt. But still, the dagger is a weapon brought to class every day, so Quebec is appealing the court decision.

In the United States, a challenge to the Sikh dagger in schools would immediately broaden into a church-state issue: by allowing a weapon because it is a religious symbol, schools would be preferring religion to non-religion, unless it allowed other weapons on grounds of conscientious but non-religious objections. If so, a challenge to the Sikh dagger could put all no-weapons school policies in jeopardy.

All diversity exemptions tend to sound benign, but many are highly questionable and headed for court.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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