In Nova Scotia, Canada, Forest Heights Community School senior William Swinimer has been in hot water for a shirt he wore to school. The Vice Principal at the school told him it was offensive and he had to remove it because it was “hate talk.”
Then, in true rebel fashion, Swinimer not only left it on, he wore it during his in-school suspensions… and his five days of out-of-school suspension.
This is the shirt that had the administration all riled up:
Swinimer is surprised his “Life is Wasted without Jesus” shirt has been at the center of so much controversy:
“I believe this is worth standing up for — it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion. I don’t think this is right.”
I’m all for students having freedom to express their beliefs. But that doesn’t mean I approve of this shirt. There’s a pretty clear reason why:
It insults people who don’t believe in Jesus. It says very directly that they’re wasting their lives and that they’re worthless. It’s a form of bullying. (It’s also completely false — How many brilliant people have made contributions to our world without believing in Christian nonsense? It’s a shirt anyone can refute with about 2 seconds of thought.)
If Swinimer wore a shirt that said, “Life is great with Jesus,” I don’t think I would care much at all. That’s a personal message with positive tones (at least in theory). It’s no different than students expressing themselves by wearing a cross. Or atheists saying we can be good without god. It doesn’t say anything negative about people who don’t agree with your beliefs.
School officials should have the right to stop students the moment they bring themselves up by putting others down. It’s just not the climate you want to foster in a high school. It also opens the door to an unwanted religious debate (in the guise of “freedom”) that doesn’t seem very conducive to learning.(By the same reasoning, I would oppose an atheist student wearing a shirt that says, “Life is wasted with Jesus.”)
Side note only because it seems relevant: I teach at a high school that was sued on behalf of students eager to wear shirts reading, “Be Happy, Not Gay” on the Day of Silence a few years ago. An Appeals court ruled in the students’ favor and the ACLU supported them, too. I think the school was right to ask the students to change their clothes back then. And perhaps I’m contradicting myself here, but I don’t think a shirt reading, “Be Happy, Be Straight,” even with the “positive language,” would have been any more acceptable…
Should Swinimer have been suspended for his shirt? I would need more information to answer that. Was he trying to provoke people? Why choose that shirt to wear and not one with a more positive message? Those things should be taken into account.
For what it’s worth, the Centre For Inquiry in Canada put out a statement in support of Swinimer:
“While CFI sponsored the Atheist Bus Campaign, we are a strong champion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” said National Communications Director Justin Trottier. “This shirt causes no harm and is a perfectly acceptable contribution to the marketplace of ideas.”
CFI condemns religious indoctrination at taxpayer expense via publicly funded religious schools or teacher-led prayers, but believes every student has a constitutional right to self-expression.
“We have consistently defended free speech rights for groups regardless of our agreement on message, including Muslim and Christian ads in public space and censored pro-life debates on campus,” said Trottier.
Instead of suspension or censorship, CFI would prefer the pro-Jesus T-shirt be used as an opportunity for dialogue and reasoned debate on religion and ethics.
Some commenters on other websites as well as emails sent to me point out that Swinimer wore this shirt in an effort to get suspended — it’s not just something that “happened” to him. I can’t confirm that, but if it’s true, that would push me toward agreeing with the suspensions.
(Thanks to everyone for the links)