A school board on the south shore of Nova Scotia has backed down after it sparked a nationwide controversy last week by suspending a grade 12 student for wearing a Christian t-shirt.
Swinimer had worn the shirt for months despite teachers’ complaints that it could be deemed offensive to non-Christians, and on April 27th his principal at Forest Heights Community School opted to suspend him for five days.
Swinimer, who attends a Pentecostal church in Bridgewater, had planned to wear the shirt when he returned to school on Monday even if it meant another suspension, which could have jeopardized the grade 12 student’s ability to graduate this year.
“I’m not against other people’s religions, but I want to have the right to express my own opinions and my own beliefs,” he told The Canadian Press. “I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”
Swinimer arrived at school with his father, John, on Monday morning intending to go to school. But they quickly left because the school had planned an assembly with facilitators from the controversial Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, as well as officials from the province’s justice and education departments, on how to properly express one’s beliefs in public.
“He will not attend this school unless they are having readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic, good old-fashioned academics,” John Swinimer told reporters.
The Swinimers’ pastor, Varrick Day, told Postmedia that the school was throwing William into “the Lion’s Den” by putting him at the center of an all-student assembly, and said the family is now considering keeping him out of school for the rest of the year.
“Everybody’s going to be looking at him like ‘you’re the problem, you’re the reason (for the trouble),” said Day.
Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake said the assembly would 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.”
“We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized,” she told The Canadian Press.
However, Swinimer has won support in his free speech campaign from groups representing atheists, Jews, and Muslims.
Jon Goldberg of the Atlantic Jewish Council told the Chronicle Herald his group “believes that everyone has a right to express their religious beliefs, and we certainly are not offended by the T-shirt in question.”
Nova Scotia’s New Democrat government had backed the school, but Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie said the school’s actions “trampled” on Swinimer’s rights.
“This is the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All Canadians, including Mr. Swinimer, are guaranteed certain rights under that charter,” Baillie said, according to CBC. “He is exercising his right as a Canadian and I think the school board should stand up for that.”