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On Jesus T-Shirts and Freedom of Religion

When I was a teenager, I felt great joy in writing slogans on torn up pillow cases, and pinning them to my black hoodie. It was a way to express myself and an attempt, albeit an awkward one, to integrate my religious and political views into my dress. Being a teenager is an awkward time in your life, you are not really sure who you are, yet you have ideas of who you would like to be. The result is a confusing mash up all of those ideas.

I understand wanting to wear a T-Shirt that expresses your religious views. If you haven't heard, a lot of conversation is happening regarding a student in Nova Scotia named William Swiminer, who was suspended for wearing a T-Shirt that read: "Life is wasted without Jesus."

When I was in high school I knew a girl who was suspended for wearing a hoodie that read on the front "Abortion is Homicide" and on the back a message about not silencing "our God." As some of you may remember, a lot of anger boiled up regarding that suspension. A lot of students chose to wear t-shirts supporting the student or criticizing the student. A lot of students walked out of class, and a sympathetic student, and good friend of mine, even sacrificed his position on the morning announcement team by using his position to promote his displeasure of the suspension.

If you were a student at Central Elgin during that time, you will certainly remember those moments. What some of you may not realize, is that I was one of the people who orchestrated the protests, and caused a lot of the confusion.

I will never forget marching right into the principal's office with my letter of formal protest. I had one of my torn up pillow cases on my hoodie, with the slogan "Don't Make My Democracy a Hypocrisy" written on it. I was so pumped to be standing up for what I believed in.

I learned a lot of things that day, and looking back on them, I have learned a lot more.

You see, the major problem the principal had with the hoodie wasn't the fact that it had an anti-abortion slogan on the front. In fact, during my conversation with her, she barely brought it up. She did tell me that a student had complained about it being offensive, and that she felt a school wasn't the place for that type of message (which in hindsight, I agree with). But her real problem with the shirt? It mentioned God.

I can still remember vividly her body language changing as she brought up the fact that the hoodie had a message about God. She was furious that a student had dared express an opinion about God in her school. For me, the matter was very simple. Students throughout the school had always worn clothing that expressed a certain point of view. In fact, all artistic expression is an expression of a certain philosophical point of view. I looked around and saw people wearing shirts made by child slaves. I looked around and saw people wearing Marilyn Manson t-shirts. I saw people wearing Peta advertising. I saw people making a statement with their clothing every single day.

You see, when you start to pick and chose which right of expression you are going to allow, it becomes very dangerous. Taking "offense" to something like expression is grey at best.

Here is the problem, freedom of religious expression is something absolutely guaranteed by our charter of rights and freedoms. If you think religious expression is something trivial, then you need to realize that freedom come as one big package, and not something that can be fragmented. When one freedom is weakened, they all are. This has been upheld by our highest courts. In 1985, the Supreme Court made this comment in the case of R. V. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. that the right to religious speech includes:

"The right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination."

 In response to the shirt in question, the school board made this statement: "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."

My only question is this: Who determines what offends? In the world outside of the classroom, it's a world of a million opinions. I am going to be honest with you - I found clothing made by slaves more offensive in high school than any other article of clothing. 

If you are going to have a school policy, you can't leave it up to the subjective reasoning of administrative enforcement. As soon as one person feels their freedom of expression has been hindered or reprised, then we all lose. 

There is a simple solution to the problem. (For the record, using Jesus as a form of marketing and commercialism bothers me sometimes almost as much as slave labour clothing.... But that is a discussion for another day.)

I think all public schools should have a uniform policy, or a very strict dress code. At that age, a school should be a place of learning. Kids can dress however they want outside of class, but in the class, I think clothing shouldn't become a distraction, or a method of class distinction. This absolves the problem of oppressive forms of authoritarianism used by prejudice administrators. It also will force young Christians to start living out their faith legitimately internally, and in the externals that really matter, instead of thinking Christ called us to "Christianize" our clothing, torn up pillow cases and all. 


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