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Unmasked

What motivates one school district to silence this little girl’s witness for Christ?

By Chris Potts


Lydia Booth happily roams her family’s small Braxton, Mississippi, farm with a little pack of loyal dogs, including an old mama Boston Terrier that the local coyotes treat with hard-earned respect. She likes feeding chickens, dotes on goats, and enjoys bringing the cows buckets of something that seems to do for them what catnip does for the feline set.

Most of all, the 9-year-old loves a bearded lizard named Arlo. He’s a big one, spending most of his days basking under a heat lamp in a clean glass case half as long as Lydia’s bed, listening to her murmured opinions and secrets and the music she coaxes from her little green keyboard.

Lydia Booth - Faith & Justice

Lydia Booth

Arlo holds first place in Lydia’s heart, but she is not above spending summer days tracking down other lizards of every size, color, and variety. She’s become something of an authority on them.

“I look at the color of their throat to see if they’re male or female,” she says. “The females, they can actually run. The males are braver, and they don’t run that fast. I look to see if they’re healthy, and make sure they’re all right. I let the little ones bite me.”

You let them …

“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “It feels good, for some reason. Their teeth … it’s like a massage to my finger.” But —

“Last time, I caught a wild one. As big as Arlo. (She holds her hands apart.) He had a big mouth, like this. (She demonstrates.) I didn’t want this thing to bite me. But he did. (She holds up a finger to show a small red scar, still healing.)

Did it hurt? “A little.” She grimaces at the memory.

It’s not the only memory that makes Lydia grimace. Last autumn, something else betrayed her innocent trust. The grown-ups who run Lydia’s school took a bite out of this young child’s faith. The scars are healing. But she still remembers the hurt.

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“Wearing it, “everything’s just right around me. It makes me feel like I’m protected by Jesus. And it makes me think people will think it’s a great mask, and that Jesus is a great God, and a great Savior.”

-Lydia Booth

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Jennifer Booth usually picks her younger children up after school. Her youngest, Roman, is in kindergarten, and Lydia is in the third grade. One day last October, the two came running and piled into the car, breathless as usual with the events of the day.

“Mama,” Lydia said, “I’ve got bad news.” Her computer lab teacher, she said, had warned her against continuing to wear her favorite mask. The one that has “Jesus Loves Me” printed on it.

“She just said it,” Lydia remembers, “a little angry, but not much. She told me not to wear it again. Not to wear that kind of mask, with words.”

Jennifer was taken aback. No words at all? She’d seen all kinds of masks on children, with all kinds of messages. “That’s insane,” she thought, telling Lydia they would check the school’s regulations on masks when they got home. At the house, she pored over all the paperwork the school had provided — the official handbook, letters, directives on COVID procedures. Nothing.

“I couldn’t find anything that specified anything to do with masks,” she says, “so I assumed they’d go by the dress code.” But the code, too, was silent. “I didn’t see anything against words on the mask. So, my assumption was: maybe the teacher’s having a bad day, and Jesus hit a nerve. Maybe she felt convicted or something.”

Jennifer texted some friends whose children attended the school, even one who worked there. None of them had heard of the mask rule. Her curiosity growing, she reached out through a private Facebook post … and still couldn’t find anyone familiar with the rule.

She decided it must have been a mistake. Lydia had worn the same mask plenty of times before, and no one had made any negative comment. Besides, Lydia was particularly fond of the “Jesus Loves Me” mask — and not just because it was light and easy to breathe through.

“I love the words,” Lydia says. Wearing it, “everything’s just right around me. It makes me feel like I’m protected by Jesus. And it makes me think people will think it’s a great mask, and that Jesus is a great God, and a great Savior.”

Unable to find any regulation that backed up the teacher’s request, Jennifer let Lydia wear the mask to school again. That morning, sitting in her reading class, Lydia heard someone call her name. She looked up to see the principal, who winked at her, smiled, and left the room. Her teacher then came over with a different mask, asking her to put on the other, plain one, instead.

“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.”

Jesus Loves Me Mask - Faith & Justice

Lydia Booth

At home, the phone rang. It was the school principal. Jennifer’s heart skipped a beat. A principal calling had to mean bad news.

“We’re going to have to replace Lydia’s mask,” the principal said. “You can’t have religious or political things on masks at school.”

“Really?” Jennifer asked. “I’m going to need you to pinpoint that policy in your handbook for me, because I’ve read the handbook, and there are no such rules.”

Over the phone, they scrolled through the handbook together. “I know it’s in here,” the principal insisted. She pointed Jennifer to the dress code, then to the section on 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.”

After they hung up, Jennifer called her husband, Matthew, who was working out of town on an extended construction project. Upset and teary, she told him what was going on.

“Hold on now,” Matthew said. “We’re not going to play that. Let me make some phone calls.” Like Jennifer, Matthew has lived in and around Braxton most of his life. The two are related to, acquainted with, or went to high school alongside virtually every one of the 180 or so people in town, and know most of the rest of the county, too. Matthew contacted a relative in the district office, who tried to convince him the newly discovered mask policy was for Lydia’s own good.

“What if some kid sits down beside her and says something derogatory about her mask?” the woman asked. “What if they come to school with a mask that says, ‘Allah Loves Me’ or ‘Satan Loves Me?’”

“You don’t do anything,” Matthew told her. “Let Lydia handle it. She can hold her own.”

The woman insisted that the policy had to stand. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

“We’ll fight,” Matthew told her. “That’s it. I’m not going to be silenced. And my kid’s not going to be silenced, either.”

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“You’re going to have to show me something. You can’t just decide you’re going to censor my child.”

-Jennifer Booth

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Jennifer, meanwhile, was still doing her homework. She found nothing about masks on the district website. What she did find was the 2013 Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act, which guarantees the freedom of students to express religious views. She also found a written pledge from district officials to respect students’ free speech rights. Later that day, she sent Lydia’s principal, teacher, and the district superintendent an email.

Mother Daughter - Faith & Justice

Lydia and Jennifer Booth

“I told them, ‘Hey, I’m going to need you to give my child her mask back — the one that says, “Jesus Loves Me.” One, there’s no rule or regulation, anything you have, that says that she can’t wear it, and two, it’s a violation of her rights. Those rights, on both the state and federal level, are recognized in your handbook. You’re in violation of your own handbook and federal law.

“And I want you to apologize to her for making her feel bad, like she’s done something wrong.”

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?” Inside, she was racking her brain over what to do next.

A parent suggested she contact the assistant superintendent, a man of good character, a man to be trusted. Jennifer emailed the man, passing along the compliment and asking if they could talk. “I just need some questions answered,” she said. “I need to know how often your staff goes to a specific room looking for a specific kid with a specific saying on their mask. My daughter wasn’t disrupting anybody, but she seems pretty singled out to me. What’s the real issue here?”

A little while later, he called her. The mask policy, he admitted, was not in the handbook. Rather, it had been in the “restart plan,” mailed to parents and posted on the district website just before the start of the new school year. The plan included a slew of COVID-related instructions, including the rules about masks. It had since been taken off the website, he explained, but he offered to send Jennifer a copy of what he said was the original, posted plan. That way she could see for herself that no one was making up these rules about masks.

And that they didn’t owe her, or Lydia, an apology.

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“If you don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of religion. Because, as a Christian, I’m called to spread the Gospel. And you can’t do that, if you can’t talk about it.”

-Jennifer Booth

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The “restart plan” email came through, and, as the administrator had assured her, included a paragraph saying masks should carry “no political, religious, sexual, or obscene gestures or symbols.” Jennifer’s heart sank. She sat at her computer, feeling sad, tired, and beaten.

But also sensing … a little nudge in her soul. As if God were prodding her into action. “You need to look at this,” she felt Him say, as she stared at the restart plan. “You need to look at this.

Jennifer, as it happens, makes her living as a specialist in information technology. She knows computers. Looking at this crucial paragraph that had suddenly, almost magically, appeared … a little professional curiosity began to nag at her. What if this restart plan was still archived on the district’s website? She began to tap the appropriate keys, and — lo — there the document was.

Now she found herself looking at two versions — the one sent by the administrator, and the one archived on the website. “Okay, Lord,” she asked. “What now?” She began tapping more keys.

“A lot of people don’t think about it,” she says, “but when you create a document, it has a whole lot of data. That data has properties. Whenever you pull up those properties, it’s going to tell you who, when, what applications are involved — everything that’s been modified or created in that document.”

In a few moments, her computer skills told her that the original, archived restart plan did not contain the paragraph about masks. The administrator himself had added that paragraph just a few minutes before emailing what he called “the original” plan to her.

Father Daughter - Faith & Justice

Lydia and Matthew Booth

“He had literally modified this document to include the information he needed to make himself right,” Jennifer says, still a little astonished to realize that “every single word out of his mouth was a lie.” She was dealing, she realized, with people willing to “run over a 9-year-old” to protect their legal position.

And willing to lie to make her little girl feel like she’d done something wrong.

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“It wasn’t ever about a mask. The ultimate goal is teaching my kids to stand up for what’s right, and not just bow down before the government.”

-Matthew Booth

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Someone recommended Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to the Booths, as a group that might come to their defense. They called, and ADF agreed to take their case. In its larger issues, the case is of a kind that ADF attorneys are encountering more and more, all over the country.

“School administrations like this are all too common,” says ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross. “We’re seeing administrators all over the place trying to shut down speech. They have many different reasons for doing it, but we are seeing a lot of Christian and conservative viewpoints being marginalized.” Harder to find, Ross says, are individuals who will challenge that unconstitutional mindset.

“The First Amendment law is very clear that these administrators can’t pick and choose what messages they will allow and not allow. We just need people who are willing to stand up to those administrations.” Many, however, are intimidated at the prospect of challenging government officials during a pandemic.

“In the age of COVID, we’re seeing a lot of people just concede way too readily to a lot of these restrictions,” Ross says. “We certainly want to respect public health and try and be responsible citizens … but this has nothing to do with health or being responsible. It’s just about what was said on a particular mask. Just because we’re in a pandemic doesn’t mean that our constitutional rights go away.”

In Lydia’s case, Ross says, the school district erred first in punishing her for not heeding a nonexistent policy. Then, to hide that error, they fabricated a new policy that itself violates the law. In the process, administrators sideswiped not one but two constitutional amendments.

“Lydia’s First Amendment free speech protections were violated because they discriminated against her for her religious views,” Ross says. The Supreme Court has said, over and over and over again, that the government does not get to decide which views are and are not acceptable [or] what types of messages they will allow on masks, as long as those messages aren’t obscene.”

What’s more, Ross says, in silencing Lydia’s religious views, administrators “are preventing her from being able to share her faith with others, in violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.”

School and district officials compounded that by violating Lydia’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, by objecting to the message on her mask but not, apparently, to messages like “Black Lives Matter” on the masks of others. (Lydia’s older brother, Hunter, who attends high school in the same district, marveled that his sister could be penalized for “Jesus Loves Me” when he was seeing all kinds of political slogans, team logos, and other messaging on his classmates’ masks every day.)

“That’s why we want these administrators to have narrow, definite, and objective policies in place,” Ross says, “so that they can’t pick and choose what is and isn’t political, or what counts as religious or not religious.”

Children and even adults are often censored, Matthew says, because people in authority want to change a rule, or because something doesn’t fit their agenda. “It makes it a little rough — you don’t want to be disrespectful to authority, and you don’t want to make up your own rules,” he adds. “But you’ve got to know when to draw the line, whenever they’re overstepping their boundaries.”

“You don’t want to be confrontational,” Jennifer says. “And that’s probably been the biggest struggle with this, for me. I don’t want to hurt anybody. It’s not about hurting anybody. But if you don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of religion. Because, as a Christian, I’m called to spread the Gospel. And you can’t do that, if you can’t talk about it.

“Little by little, they’re taking God out of everything,” she says. “First, they start with prayers, and taking devotionals out of schools, and now they’re trying to take away just saying Jesus’ name. So, where’s the line for us as Christians? There has to be a line.”

That realization is what prompted Matthew and Jennifer to pursue the case with ADF. “I felt like God wouldn’t have given me the information I needed to look at, if there wasn’t something that needed to be done about it,” Jennifer says. “And I’d have felt very convicted if I hadn’t done something.”

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“Just because we’re in a pandemic doesn’t mean that our constitutional rights go away.”

-Michael Ross

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As of this writing, the school district and the Booths are still at a legal impasse. The district is letting Lydia wear her mask again — but administrators still refuse to officially retract the original policy and replace it with one that is constitutionally sound, or to apologize to Lydia for the embarrassment and confusion they’ve made her feel about sharing her faith.

“The thing is, it wasn’t ever about a mask,” Matthew says. “The ultimate goal is teaching my kids to stand up for what’s right, and not just bow down before the government.”

“I want my kids to know that, one day, Mama and Daddy are not going to be here,” Jennifer says, “and they’ve got to stand up to this stuff, too. It’s probably going to be a lot worse. And I want them to be so strong in their faith that they take it head-on. And don’t back down.”

“I’ve talked with Lydia a little bit about it,” Matthew says. “She’s said for a long time that she wants to be a missionary when she grows up. I told her, ‘You know, in a roundabout way, you’re already doing mission work.’”

Indeed, she is. A young classmate, seeing her mask, wanted one just like it. (“It’s not a good time to be wearing one,” Lydia warned her.) The friend’s older sister, in junior high, heard about what was happening, and decided to read the Bible — all the way through. Nor is Lydia’s witness limited to her mask. “She lives out her faith every day,” a former teacher wrote on Facebook.

Booth Family - Faith & Justice

The Booth family, from left to right: Roman, Jennifer, Hunter, Lydia, and Matthew

“She’s different from a lot of kids,” Matthew says. “I really feel she’s filled with the Spirit. I’m not saying that because she’s my child — that’s just her. She does stuff she isn’t supposed to; she gets in trouble … but she’s passionate about talking to people about Jesus. And as far as her dealing with all this — if something’s said to her, I believe that she’s going to fight the good fight, and try to lead the one saying something to Christ.”

“I’m happy that He made this world and He made us,” Lydia says. “And I’m glad He made things just right for us. Just like I’ve got a lizard, and I love him so much. I think about how when He created lizards, it makes me happy. And all the other animals, and the beautiful world out there. I think it’s just right for us, and that’s one reason I love Him. He protects us.

“I’m feeling like God is telling me to get prepared,” she says, “and He’s making me learn a lot more stuff … so that I should fight for the Lord. So everybody will know He is the King, and nobody will go to the bad place. Or …”

Lydia lowers her voice to a whisper. “… hell.”

She makes another grimace.

“I just don’t like saying that word.”

 

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