Last week a story broke from Nova Scotia that a high school student was suspended for wearing a t-shirt that said “Life is wasted without Jesus”.
The story went that the student wore the same shirt several days in a row (let’s assume he washed it or had multiple ones and wasn’t suspended for stinking up the place) and was suspended when he refused to obey a demand by the school’s principal that he no longer wear the shirt.
Quick to stand up for free speech and religious freedom, Centre for Inquiry Canada released a press release condemning the school.
"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."
I could point out again how CFI did not sponsor the Atheist Bus Campaign (except in Kelowna) – the Freethought Association of Canada did – but that’s not my point here.
With any sensational news story, I think we all ought to put our skeptic hats and try to figure out what is really going on before we rush to comment. And in this case, it turns out there’s quite a bit more there.
Students said William Swinimer has been preaching and making them feel uncomfortable, and the shirt was the last straw so they complained.
"He’s told kids they’ll burn in hell if they don’t confess themselves to Jesus," student Riley Gibb-Smith said.
Katelyn Hiltz, student council vice-president, agreed the controversy didn’t begin with the T-shirt.
"It started with him preaching his religion to kids and then telling them to go to hell. A lot of kids don’t want to deal with this anymore," she said.
Furthermore, the students father has begun pulling William from any class beyond the basics.
"He will not attend this school unless they are having reading, writing and arithmetic — good old-fashioned academics," he said, waving a New Testament bible. "When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extra-curricular activity, he will not attend that school."
I guess that means no evolution, sex-ed, or critical thinking for poor William.
This background doesn’t change the fact that suspended a student for wearing a t-shirt is wrong, but it does give the context of why such a seemingly disproportionate measure was taken. The school was fed up with an obnoxious Jesus freak shoving his religion down everyone’s throats. The school administrators have a duty to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe at the school and are able to learn, if one student is compromising that security, then they’re bound to find a way to deal with it.
If anyone else had worn that t-shirt, they would have been fine, but couple it to a continued campaign of disruptions, and I can understand and potentially support the school’s actions.
Of course, we likely still don’t have a complete story. We don’t know the extent that William pushed his religion on others and we don’t know how many people complained about it. We likely never will.
But this is precisely why organizations that want to maintain some semblance of credibility on these issues ought to hesitate before crying wolf. It’s nice to be the first to comment, but without the full context, one can come off as ignorant and closed-minded.
Friendly Atheist and high school math teach Hemant Mehta was also generally supportive of the suspension.