When is a t-shirt not just a t-shirt?

When participating in an online poll about this that asked, “Should a student be suspended for wearing a ‘Jesus’ t-shirt?“, I read the entire story above and then voted yes. I wasn’t expecting to, but then I thought about how the story might have been perceived differently with just some minor wording changes.

The advocates for allowing the t-shirt are referencing religious freedom and freedom of speech. However, the message on the shirt is not just an indication of this fellow’s religion – it is a promotion of his religion as better than others; whereas a person wearing a hijab or kirpan is simply complying with their religious beliefs, and indicating to the world their chosen faith, the t-shirt message is both proselytizing on behalf of Christianity and denigrating other faiths as a waste of time. Based on that latter part, the message is not just an expression of free speech; with the indication that any religion but his religion is a waste, it is, by definition, hate speech. To me, there’s a difference between “I believe Jesus is the best” and “You should too”, or “Those who believe in Jesus ROCK!” and “If you don’t believe in Jesus you’re a dummy”.

I think my point is even better illustrated by changing the t-shirt in one-word increments. What if we edit a bit, so that we have “Life is wasted with Jesus”. Or substitute the middle word with “Life is awesome with Jesus”. Or change the object to “Life is wasted without Allah”. Any of these may also cause controversy – and result in a student suspension – but for completely different reasons. Freedom of speech and religion would still be issues, just used as reasons for people to insist on the suspension rather than argue against it.

The option was offered to change the t-shirt to say “My life is wasted without Jesus”, turning the statement into a personal belief rather than an attack on others. That this option was rejected by the student further emphasized for me that the statement isn’t a personal statement but an expression of judgement about others, which is where it goes beyond the protection of freedoms of speech and religion.

A side argument is that the student was in a public place – a school. However, a school is not really a public place, like a library or a community centre. People that are there – teachers, students, employees – can’t just leave if they don’t like what they see or hear. If teacher has to see messages like that – messages that perhaps they find offensive or insulting – that makes a disrespectful workplace. If fellow students have to see that message, and they find it insulting or demeaning, they can’t just leave the room. And they shouldn’t have to.

We do live in a world with rules, and one of those includes that our freedom of speech be tempered by respect for our fellow citizens, regardless of race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and a list of other things. I understand that the student believes he is standing up for his principles and for freedom of speech and religion, but everyone (perhaps especially students) need to learn and understand that freedoms also come with responsibilities, including respect for the rights and opinions of others. Anyone, any student, has the right to express their religious beliefs as they relate to them. No one should have the right to insist that their religion is better, or that any other religion is wrong or a waste, without accepting the consequences of that insistence.

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