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Jesus Is Just Okay with Me – Censorship Isn’t

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 4, 2012

You may have heard about a recent kerfuffle occurring in Nova Scotia about a young student wearing a Jesus themed t-shirt. If not, here’s an article on the CBC about it.

In a nut shell, this student, one William Swinimer showed up to class with a T-shirt that read “Life is wasted without Jesus.” He was suspended by the school after he was warned not to wear the shirt, supposedly on the grounds that it was either offensive or controversial. However recently that decision was overruled and Swinimer has been allowed to return with the T-shirt. The school board went through a series of debates with the kid as well as his local religious leader and eventually decided to allow the student to return.

In addition the school will be having a facilitator come in to discuss with students how to respectfully display their beliefs or something.

When we take a few moments to consider this issue, there are lots of ways we could get offended by this. To be frank, this Swinimer kid sounds like a righteous little fundamental who needs to check his privilege. He’s made several statements regarding how persecuted Christians are in his community and how they are constantly put down in school and such. His shirt’s statements could be interpreted through the lens of “if you aren’t one of us, you’re against us” or even more dramatically “if you aren’t Christian, you should just kill yourself.”  In today’s day of student’s actually killing themselves due to bullying this seems obscenely offensive.

So I guess I would be happy to jump on the “condemn” bandwagon, I’m reminded of something I’ve often said, “no one has the right to go through life unoffended.”

I can’t just ignore my own assertions when it becomes inconvenient for me to do so. I would be a huge hypocrite to do so. Many times I’ve chastised religious people for throwing a hissy fit because someone dared to publicly disagree with them. Now, someone is publicly expressing their disagreement with my opinion… is my answer going to be censorship?

I don’t think so.

CFI Canada also has weighed in on this issue:

“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.”

and

“We have consistently defended free speech rights for groups regardless of our agreement on message, including Muslim and Christian ads in public space and censored pro-life debates on campus,” said Trottier.

Rather than suspending the kid, what are some more constructive solutions the school could have considered? Perhaps a townhall type meeting to discuss the content and public declarations of religion in a school. Alternatively the school could host a talk by a pro-secular speaker on the issues of secularism and religious discrimination of anyone not in its camp. This option might be useful if those who are upset with Swinimer and want be in a venue where they don’t have defend themselves. That may sound like a strange thing to say but if we put ourselves into the shoes of someone who is against Swinimer wearing that shirt, perhaps because of the issue of religious homophobia, stepping in front of a crowd of people to explain why could be extremely daunting and intimidating, especially if you think more than half your audience is there to argue with you. Having a venue where the person can basically say their peace without being interrupted or challenged could be a more attractive option.

Back onto the subject of why secularists should be against censorship, consider if a student had worn a pro-atheist t-shirt. Had the school reacted by suspending the student, we’d be justifiably up in arms.

Nevertheless, the thorny issue of “where is the right venue for this discussion” has been brought up many times regarding this debate. People who are both supporters and detractors are asking “is a school the appropriate place for having this debate?” I would argue there is no more appropriate place than a school. After all, is a school not where we go to learn and be challenged and explore new ideas? Wouldn’t this qualify as one of those situations? We also have the question of “shouldn’t religion belong in your home, not a public place?” That can be another difficult question. Especially because Swininmer’s shirt could be seen as proselytizing. In my opinion, since he’s a student, not a figure in authority, this wouldn’t be considered an issue of proselytizing and keeping in mind, if a student showed up with a Atheism shirt the same argument could be made that it belongs at home, not in a public school.

Some of us may get a bad taste in our mouth while defending Swininmer, especially while he and his supporters prattle on about Christians being suppressed and bullied in today’s secular age… to me the specter of censorship is a far more offensive notion.

As Voltaire probably didn’t say:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. “

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