Nine-year-old Lydia Booth climbed into the backseat of the car. “Mama, I’ve got bad news,” she told her mother Jennifer, who was picking her up from school.
Lydia explained that her computer lab teacher had warned her against wearing her favorite face mask to school.
Like many schools opening up during the pandemic, Lydia’s school in Simpson County, Mississippi required students to wear a facial covering. And like many students during the COVID pandemic, Lydia’s classmates used their masks to express themselves.
If you were to walk around the campuses of the school district, you would see masks displaying everything from the Jackson State University logo to the New Orleans Saints logo to “Black Lives Matter.”
But what was wrong with Lydia’s?
It said “Jesus Loves Me” in bright pink letters.
Lydia Booth’s Story
Lydia is your typical elementary schooler. She loves her parents, her brothers, and playing with her pets on the family farm.
But her willingness to witness for her faith isn’t so typical.
When Lydia went to school wearing her favorite “Jesus Loves Me” mask, she wanted to share the love of Jesus with those around her. “It makes me feel like I’m protected by Jesus,” she said. “And it makes me think people will think it’s a great mask, and that Jesus is a great God, and a great Savior.”
But school officials dashed this little girl’s witness when they forced her to remove her mask.
“It made me sad, and a little confused,” Lydia remembers. “Sad, because I love the words on that mask. And confused because I didn’t know why it was happening.”
This isn’t just wrong—it’s unconstitutional.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a lawsuit on Lydia’s behalf. But we need your help to continue to pursue justice for this brave ten-year-old. Will you consider making a tax-deductible gift today?
A mother’s stand for justice
After Lydia was asked to remove her mask at school, Lydia’s mother Jennifer poured through 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.
Assuming that this must have been a mistake, Jennifer sent Lydia back to school with the same mask.
That’s when Jennifer received a call from the principal.
The principal told Jennifer that Lydia couldn’t wear her “Jesus Loves Me” mask, saying that “you can’t have religious or political things on masks at school.”
That was news to Jennifer who not only had researched all the schools’ policies but had asked friends and members of the school’s staff if they’ve ever heard of such a rule—they had not.
Together, over the phone, both the principal and Jennifer flipped through the handbook. “I know it’s in here,” the principal said. But there wasn’t anything except a rule against obscene words and gestures.
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said, “but everything that I’m reading here does not put Jesus in any of those categories. You’re going to have to show me something. You can’t just decide you’re going to censor my child.”
Jennifer kept searching for answers. She found nothing about religious messages on masks on the school district website. She did, however, find that the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act guaranteed students, like her daughter, the freedom to express their religious views.
She sent an email to the school district’s superintendent sharing her findings. “I want you to apologize to [Lydia] for making her feel bad, like she’s done something wrong,” it read.
That afternoon, Lydia climbed into the car wearing a different mask. She was upset. “Mama,” she said, “they made me change masks. And it is against the rules.”
“No, Baby,” Jennifer told her. “It’s not. And Mama’s going to take care of it. You didn’t do anything wrong, okay?”
What Lydia’s Mother Discovered on the District’s Website
Jennifer wasn’t about to allow her little girl to be censored and then made to feel like she was the one in the wrong. At the advice of a fellow parent, Jennifer reached out to the assistant superintendent directly.
After Jennifer sent an email inquiring about Lydia’s mask situation at school, the assistant superintendent called her. He said that while the rule about no words on masks was not in the handbook or dress code, it did appear in the school’s restart plan, which he sent to Jennifer in an email.
Jennifer knew something was off about this. A technology expert, she decided to use her skills to investigate this document.
It turned out, the restart plan that was archived on the district’s website was different than the one the assistant superintendent sent her. And the only difference was the sentence about words on masks. Even worse, the document he sent her had been modified just before she spoke to him on the phone.
“He had literally modified this document to include the information he needed to make himself right,” Jennifer said. She realized she was dealing with people willing to “run over a 9-year-old” to protect their legal position.
Public Schools Can’t Ignore Free Speech Rights
Students like Lydia Booth don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they enter a school building.
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.
Public schools should be demonstrating the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, not suppressing them.
“No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students,” 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.”
Alliance Defending Freedom is proud to be representing Lydia Booth in challenging her school’s unfair and unconstitutional decision and vindicating her rights.
But we need your help. As a nonprofit, ADF relies solely on the contributions of people like you to represent clients free of charge. Will you chip in today to help Lydia fight this unfair policy?
About Alliance Defending Freedom
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
ADF was launched in 1994 by 35 ministry leaders, including Dr. James Dobson, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. Bill Bright, and Larry Burkett.
With God’s blessing, ADF has grown from the prayers of those godly leaders to become a major force in the legal battle for religious freedom, winning nearly 80% of our cases, including 15 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court since 2011.