As far as some government officials are concerned, religious freedom matters less than other freedoms.
The lesson appears to be no different in the third grade.
That’s why ADF 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 face 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.
WHO: Lydia Booth
A third-grade student censored her expression because her school threatened escalating discipline, up to and including suspension.
Lydia wished to peacefully share her Christian views with her schoolmates by wearing a mask with the message, “Jesus Loves Me” printed on it, but the principal at her school required her to remove and replace it. Two days later, administrators announced a policy that prohibits 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 have worn masks with a wide variety of messages, including masks displaying college logos, professional sports team logos, and “Black Lives Matter.”
WHEN: October 13 – Present
Even though she wore the mask without disruption or incident, Lydia was asked to remove and replace her mask on October 13. ADF filed a federal lawsuit on November 2.
WHERE: Simpson County School District in Mississippi
The student’s mother, Jennifer Booth, originally 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 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, including a ban on religious messages on face masks, that were not published in the original plan. The next day, the district’s superintendent announced this new ban to all parents in the district.
WHY: 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” is left completely up to school officials.
If masks expressing other beliefs and views are allowed, then “Jesus Loves Me” should be allowed as well.
The Bottom Line
Public schools should be demonstrating the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, not suppressing them.
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