William Swiminer, a 12-grade student at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, has been suspended for a second time for wearing a T-shirt which mentioned the name of Jesus. The “offensive” yellow shirt actually reads “Life is wasted without Jesus.”
Swiminer knew, after the first suspension, that he was jeopardizing his academic standing, and that a second suspension could prevent him from graduating with his class. He felt strongly, though, that he had a Constitutional right to free speech, and he continued to wear the shirt which his father had purchased while on a trip to the United States.
“I’m not against other people’s religions,” he said, “but I want to have the right to express my own opinions and my own beliefs … and that’s why I wear the T-shirt.”
The problem could be solved if Swiminer were to, say, hand-write the word “MY” near the shirt collar. School Board Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, quoted in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, explained that the T-shirt could be offensive to those with other beliefs. “If it said ‘My Life is Wasted Without Jesus,’ that would be fine,” said Pynch-Worthylake, “because that would be more personal.”
Swiminer will return to the classroom on Monday, May 7; and once again, he will be wearing the shirt. Pynch-Worthylake now says that “it was never about the shirt,” but rather, about how to express one’s beliefs without offending others.
The story should continue to grab headlines this week: The school plans to hold a series of gatherings for students on Monday to discuss what is appropriate when expressing your convictions, what’s not, and how to deal with things when there’s a conflict. Officials from government departments will be present. Following the daytime meetings for students, there will be a 7:00 p.m. meeting for students and their parents.
The School Board is now consulting with a human rights expert to determine whether Swiminer’s T-shirt message is offensive to people of other faiths.
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UPDATE: William Swiminer was expected to return to classes on Monday, May 7, after a five-day suspension. There, he would join other students in a special talk about finding the balance between exercising one’s religious freedom, and respecting others’ rights not to be criticized for their beliefs.
Instead, he returned only briefly with his father, John Swiminer, who withdrew his son from the school. The father, carrying a copy of the New Testament, explained to waiting reporters from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald:
“The taxpayer is paying for him to learn his academics as well as the other students and I am not standing for any of this stuff…. He will not attend this school unless they are having reading, writing and arithmetic, good old-fashioned academics. When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extra curricular activities, he will not attend that school.”
District superintendent Nancy Pinch-Worthylake was surprised by Swiminer’s withdrawal from school. She expressed her disappointment, saying that “We were hoping he would be part of these conversations.”
It remains to be seen whether Swiminer will ever return to the school, or whether he will complete his last year of studies elsewhere.