With two young kids at home, it isn't often that Manjot Singh and his wife get a night to themselves. When an evening opened up earlier this month, the couple took the opportunity to take in a showing of Man of Steel at an AMC movie theater in the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville.
However, instead of comic book escapism, Singh's evening was ruined by what he called a "racist and discriminatory act."
Singh and his wife bought their tickets, found their seats and, before the film started, Singh got up to get something to drink from the concession stand. By the time Singh had made his purchase and started on his way back to the theater, he was stopped by theater security guards who insisted that he was in violation of AMC's zero-tolerance policy on weapons.
At issue was Singh's kirpan, a ceremonial sword carried by many baptized Sikhs as an article of faith. For devout Sikhs like Singh, the kirpan is a sacred symbol of one's duty to always stand against injustice that should be worn at all times. As Singh insisted to theater security, he felt no more comfortable removing the sword than he would have felt taking off an arm or leg.
Singh's wife, who had by this time come out from the theater, was also carrying her kirpan and was similarly asked to leave. While the couple were given full refunds, the humiliation they felt still stings.
"People were staring at us, looking at us like we were terrorists," he recalled.
AMC issued a statement in response:
Our 'no weapons' policy prohibits guests from carrying weapons of any kind into our theaters. This national policy is for the safety and security of our guests and staff. The person in question was approached when our security team noticed the guest was wearing an approximately 5-1/2 inch unsheathed knife, in clear violation of our rules. We stand by our policy, as this matter is about the weapon alone and not at all about religious freedoms. The safety and security of all our guests and associates is our duty and responsibility, and we take it very seriously.
Singh said this incident was not the first time he had been inconvenienced by his refusal to take off his kirpan. He has been denied entry to court houses, barred from serving on juries and stopped at post offices. He takes it off to ride on airplanes, temporarily replacing it with a small representation, but says it is rarely an issue in his daily routine. He said he has taken it everywhere from his job to college classrooms to amusement parks without incident.
Sikh civil rights advocacy group United Sikhs, which is representing Singh, is hosting a petition on its website pushing AMC to abandon its anti-kirpan policy.
"This continuous attack on religious freedom must be stopped," said United Sikhs Advocacy Director Manvinder Singh in a statement. He added that his organization is "prepared to take all necessary measures to protect Mr. Singh's religious rights..[which are] guaranteed by the First Amendment."
The conflict between observant Sikhs unwilling to compromise on their religious beliefs and an American society increasingly conserved with security has increased in recent years.
However, Sikh groups recently reached a compromise with the Department of Homeland Security at airports by displaying a series of posters specifically aimed at guiding airport security through handling the inspection of kirpans.
The Times of India reports:
In the last two years, Sikhs have been arrested, threatened with arrest or harassed in disputes with guards over kirpan. The poster tells security workers how to navigate the situation: "Respectfully ask if a Sikh is carrying a kirpan. If so, request to inspect the kirpan," it reads.
"If a kirpan must be confiscated, explain the reason(s) and handle the kirpan with respect and care." For Sikh Americans, this is a huge and significant accomplishment," Manjit Singh, co-founder and chairman of Legal Fund, told Post. The poster also tells screeners to "show respect to all variations of faith."