During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans learned that, as far as some government officials are concerned, religious freedom does not matter.
This lesson appears to be no different in the third grade.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an elementary school student and her parents after school officials prohibited her from wearing a face mask with the message “Jesus Loves Me” on it.
“While school administrators have faced challenges in helping students navigate school life during a pandemic, those officials simply can’t suspend the First Amendment or arbitrarily pick and choose the messages that students can or can’t express,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross.
Thankfully, because this student took a stand, her freedom and the freedom of her classmates will be preserved.
Who is Lydia Booth?
“Mama, I’ve got bad news,” then-9-year-old Lydia Booth said to her mom after school one day.
Lydia then told her mom, Jennifer, that her computer lab teacher had warned her against continuing to wear her favorite mask to school. The issue? It had the words “Jesus Loves Me” printed on it. Lydia loves the words—they make her feel safe. She had the mask custom-made by a family friend.
“She just said it,” Lydia remembers her teacher’s admonishment, “a little angry, but not much. She told me not to wear it again. Not to wear that kind of mask, with words.”
Something seemed off, and Jennifer’s motherly instinct kicked in.
Back at home on their family farm, Jennifer pored over all the school’s regulations—she looked at the official handbook, letters, directives on COVID, everything. “I couldn’t find anything that specified anything to do with masks,” she said, “so I assumed they’d go by the dress code.”
But when she checked the dress code, there was nothing that would have banned Lydia’s “Jesus Loves Me” mask. In fact, there was a section about protecting students’ freedom of speech and religion.
Jennifer decided that this must have been a mistake. So, she sent Lydia back to school with the same mask.
That’s when Jennifer received a call from the principal.
Lydia’s principal told Jennifer that “you can’t have religious or political things on masks at school.”
Jennifer pointed out that the school handbook had no policy limiting her daughter’s religious expression. In fact, it expressly protects her speech under adopted policies that are consistent with the Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment.
A school official eventually responded with a copy of the school’s plan addressing the district’s response to COVID-19, but the official’s response included retroactive modifications adding a ban on religious messages on face masks that was not published in the original plan. The next day, the district’s superintendent announced this new ban to all parents in the district.
The district’s new policy prohibited messages on masks that are “political, religious, sexual or inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive to the school environment.”
Various other students and faculty had worn masks with a wide variety of messages, including masks displaying college logos, professional sports team logos, and “Black Lives Matter.”
Jennifer realized she was dealing with people willing to “run over a 9-year-old” to protect themselves. That’s when she called on the help of ADF to help Lydia get the justice she deserves.
ADF filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lydia and her parents. And after more than two years of litigation, the school district agreed to a settlement which included a change to the unconstitutional policy.
Public schools have a duty to respect the free expression of students. School officials can’t pick and choose which messages students are allowed to express and which they aren’t. And they certainly can’t single out religious speech for worse treatment than other types of speech. On top of that, what qualifies as “offensive” or “disruptive” or “distractive” cannot be left completely up to the whim of school officials.
Under the settlement agreement, Simpson County School District will pay $45,000 and allow Lydia to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask to school if she chooses to do so.
“No student should be singled out for peacefully expressing her religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Today’s students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public schools demonstrate the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.”
- November 2020: ADF attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lydia Booth and her parents. Shortly after ADF filed suit, the school agreed to allow Lydia to begin wearing the mask, but it didn’t acknowledge that it had violated her rights.
- January 2023: As part of a settlement agreement, the Simpson County School District agreed to allow Lydia to wear her mask if she chose to do so and pay attorneys’ fees.
The bottom line
Public schools should be demonstrating the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, not suppressing them.