A national atheist organization is lauding Friday's reversal of a Nova Scotia school board ban on a Christian T-shirt worn by a Grade 12 student that was deemed offensive by some students and teachers at his school.
The Centre for Inquiry spokesman Justin Trottier told Postmedia News that he's "pleased" with the board's decision to allow Grade 12 student William Swinimer to wear a shirt with the words "Life is wasted without Jesus" when he returns to class on Monday after a five-day suspension.
Swinimer, a student at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, west of Halifax, was suspended last week after the South Shore Regional School Board said he "defied" his principal's instructions not to wear it to school again.
"We really thought his (case) was a clear cut violation of free speech . . . and freedom of religion. We didn't see it doing any harm," Trottier said.
The board confirmed the student can wear the T-shirt when he returns on Monday and that discussions with students at the school will begin that same day about "expressing beliefs in a complex multicultural school environment."
Supt. Nancy Pynch-Worthylake in an email to Postmedia News said the upcoming school-wide discussion with a board-appointed facilitator "will include discussions of any slogans worn to school on Monday that express personal beliefs and how we discuss those that may be offensive to other students.
"Our focus will not be on discipline but rather on discussing and learning together," she said.
According to Trottier, "There's a difference between a teacher or principal . . . bringing in Bibles and students volunteering to wear a shirt or choosing to organize for the sake of their religious beliefs."
The Centre for Inquiry, which represents atheists, agnostics and secular humanists, had been responsible for a controversial nationwide atheist bus ad which trumpeted the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Swinimer's pastor, Varrick Day of the Pentecostal Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Bridgewater, N.S., told Postmedia News Swinimer said he will return to school on Monday wearing the T-shirt, citing his right to freedom of speech under the charter.
Day said he welcomed the ban's reversal, but said the issue "goes much deeper than the T-shirt."
For the last two years, Day said Swinimer has been "bullied" at the school because he has worn the T-shirt on some occasions and that he was "being spoken down to because of his faith and willingness to share his faith."
'It's an ongoing situation between William and the staff," he said.
"I feel personally that the (initial) decision of the board was a discriminatory judgment when it comes to your freedom of speech and sharing your faith," Day said.
According to the board, the Monday meeting isn't really about the contested T-shirt but "a broader discussion of how to express our beliefs in a respectful manner and how we deal with concerns about that message."
Nova Scotia's education minister told reporters on Thursday that she sided with the board and its decision to suspend Swinimer.
Meanwhile, the province's Progressive Conservative leader came to Swinimer's defence, citing his charter rights.
In a previous interview, Pynch-Worthylake said the T-shirt was interpreted by some teachers and students at the school as a "criticism of their beliefs."
"While we may differ on the interpretation of a message, the priority is to provide an opportunity to learn how to express beliefs and concerns," she said in a Friday statement.
According to board policy, "students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs. However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others' beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle."