CHESTER BASIN, N.S. – A Nova Scotia student says he will return to classes next week wearing a controversial T-shirt that led to his suspension and aroused a lively debate about freedom of speech and religion.
William Swinimer said Friday he will show up at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin with the bright yellow shirt that bears the message, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”
The Grade 12 student said he realized he might be suspended again, lose the rest of the academic year and jeopardize his chance of graduating.
But the devout Christian said he wanted to stand up for freedoms he feels are guaranteed in the Constitution.
“I’m not against other people’s religions, 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,” he said about the garment that his father picked up as a souvenir in the United States.
“I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”
Swinimer, who said he’s been wearing it to school for months, was suspended last week for continuing to wear the shirt to school after he had been repeatedly asked by the principal not to.
Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, the superintendent for the South Shore Regional School Board, said Friday that Swinimer was suspended for defying the principal’s request.
She said the school has sought outside help to try to resolve the fractious split over a student’s right to express his beliefs at the expense of offending others. Officials with the school board have been grappling with the thorny issue since students complained about the shirt weeks ago, resulting in Swinimer’s suspension.
Pynch-Worthylake said the controversy, which has generated debate and attracted attention from across the country, will lead to a broader talk with students and Swinimer about how to accommodate both interests.
“We’re really moving way past the T-shirt and what our focus will become now is how we as a school system work when we have multiple and conflicting interpretations in a sensitive area,” she said from Bridgewater, N.S.
“We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.
“So what this is causing us to explore is where’s the balance.”
Pynch-Worthylake said Swinimer’s pastor has agreed to take part in the debate that will look at how to ensure students’ rights are not violated, while protecting other students from criticism.
She said if Swinimer or any student chooses to wear a similar shirt on Monday, there would be no consequence and it would help form part of the discussion.
She said it’s not clear what the school will do if Swinimer continues to wear the shirt past Monday, but added that the board has never said it would suspend him again if he persisted.
“That’s part of the conversation we’re having and hope to have a good, solid plan in place before Monday, so there’s no conflict and it’s all positive,” she said.
Varrick Day, Swinimer’s pastor in Bridgewater, said he doesn’t see the value in holding a forum with students and school officials since Swinimer has indicated he won’t alter his position.
“There’s nothing really to talk about. He’s not taking the shirt off and he’s not going to change any wording,” he said. “What is there to talk about?”
He said he has asked to speak with Premier Darrell Dexter and the education minister to find out if they support what he said was Swinimer’s right to express his religious beliefs.
Peter McLaughlin, spokesman for Education Minister Ramona Jennex, said she supported the board’s handling of the matter and wouldn’t an express an opinion on whether Swinimer should have been suspended.
“She’s supportive of the board’s efforts to try to mediate an end to this situation,” he said, adding that it is a board issue. “They’re obviously trying to make an honest effort to reach some kind of accommodation.”
— By Alison Auld in Halifax