EFC says the Charter protects suspended high school student
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
A Nova Scotia high school student who faced suspension for wearing T-shirt saying, “Life is Wasted without Jesus” has Charter rights on his side, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
“It is lamentable that a student has faced 12 days of school suspension for wearing such a t-shirt and that school officials have expended valuable resources on managing this situation,” the EFC’s legal counsel wrote in an open letter to Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, Superintendent of the South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB), who told various news media she was seeking the opinion of a human rights expert.
“Frankly, a statement as vague, unspecific and obscure as ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’, is not captured by any categorical limits on free expression,” said the letter signed by Legal Counsel Faye Sonier and EFC Vice President and Legal Counsel Don Hutchinson.
The vice-principal at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, N.S. told William Swimmer, 19, the T-shirt was offensive. The grade 12 student continued to wear it with the encouragement of his pastor, evangelist Varrick Day of Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Bridgewater, N.S. an independent Pentecostal Church.
The EFC legal counsel described themselves as “Canadian lawyers who specialize in section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, notably the rights to freedom of religion and conscience.”
They repeated what they have held before various courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada that the state should be “limited in its power to monitor or censure expression or debate,” noting that the school and the board are extensions of the state.
“Schools should be a welcoming environment,” for all students and that the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act forbids discrimination on the basis of religion and creed, the EFC wrote.
Schools are not to be “religion-free” zones and constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion extend to all students, teachers and parents, the letter said. “Recognition of pluralism includes and requires respect for the worldview of religious and other communities represented in the public school system.”
The EFC outlined recent case law, showing the Supreme Court has upheld the right of people to “declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance and reprisal,” (Big M Drug Mart) and includes the right to “express disagreement with the beliefs of others,” (Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony.)
The school board posted a statement on its website saying, “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 other’s beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”
“If a message can be reasonably interpreted by a person as negative towards another person’s beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle, and if it has offended other students and/or staff, the SSRSB feels that such instances are unacceptable . . . .”
The EFC questioned the policy. “It is obvious that not all values or beliefs will be agreed upon by every person connected to the school. To hope to achieve a homogenous utopia where no one is ever offended is unrealistic and undesirable.”
There is no human right not to be offended, the EFC said. “Canadians are free to express themselves, their beliefs, their values, whether they are reasonable, ridiculous or offensive. Additionally, feeling offended by the opinions of others is not a violation of any known Canadian or international human right.”