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Lomita Student Wins Nationwide Essay Contest


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Conflicts over the separation of church and state aren't limited to Christians who want to pray in school.

Sikhs, whose religious requirements call for them to wear a small knife at all times, often find themselves running afoul of rules designed to ensure safety in schools and the workplace.

This was the topic of an essay by Kira Alia Cozzolino, a Lomita resident and recent graduate of California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS) school in Carson, who beat out 370 competitors to take first place in the nationwide 2011 Religious Liberty Essay Scholarship Contest.

For her essay, Kira won a $1,000 scholarship and a trip to Washington, D.C., which she'll take in conjunction with the October board meeting of the group that sponsored the essay contest, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. This fall, she's heading to Northwestern University in Illinois.

The organization announced the winners in a press release last week, but Kira said she learned of her victory about a month ago, while riding in the car with her parents and receiving an email notification on her iPhone.
"I was really happy," she said, speaking by phone from Hawaii, where

she was vacationing last week. "I almost thought it was a mistake. I'd been told the essay contest draws a huge number of participants."

This year's essay topic asked students to examine what happens when religious rights collide with other rights, and to explore potential solutions.
Kira said she doesn't know any followers of Sikhism, but was drawn to the topic because it struck her as less talked about than other oft-debated controversies over religious freedom, such as those involving Muslim women and the burka.

At the same time, Sikhism, commonly practiced in India, is far from obscure: with some 30 million followers, it is the ninth largest religion in the world, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. And court cases involving the kirpan - a small knife that adherants must wear at all times as a token of their commitment against evil - are surprisingly common.

It isn't difficult to imagine how the religious requirement of, say, a fourth-grader to carry such a knife might clash with a school district's zero-tolerance policy for weapons.

This is exactly what happened in Michican this past December, when a boy wore a kirpan to Bentley Elementary School, leading the Plymouth-Canton School District to ban the practice. The district later reversed the ban, but with several conditions. The blades need to be dull, sewn into their sheaths and worn beneath clothing.

Other cases involve outcomes that are perhaps less compromising: a man arrested for wearing a kirpan on an Amtrak train, a woman fired from her job with the IRS.

In her essay, Kira wrote that the Plymouth-Canton case seemed to strike the right balance between enforcing safety rules while preserving the religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment.

"In a school environment, where safety is an utmost priority and concern, kirpans should be restricted to types that are completely risk-free," she wrote.

She concluded: "Absolute restrictions on the symbols should rarely be enforced, as this would infringe on the rights granted by the First Amendment. Rather, a reasonable compromise should be sought, in which both sides understand the needs of the other - both the need for the expression of one's religious faith, and the need for a society in which every person abides by the law."

Kira said she loves to write, but biology is her first love.

"When I was a kid I would watch shows like `Animal Planet' and `Bill Nye the Science Guy,"' she said. "I always went to science camps."

At Northwestern, she plans to double major in biology and creative writing.
Her academic interests approximate the chosen professions of her parents.

Kira's mother is a retired technical writer from Raytheon and her father works as an engineer at the same company. An only child, Kira attended Dana Middle School in Hawthorne before coming to CAMS. Her mother was raised Methodist and her father was raised Catholic.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is an advocacy organization that champions religious freedom for all, as well as the concept of the separation of church and state, according to its website.



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