In early October, a nine-year-old Christian Mississippi girl who wore a “Jesus Loves Me” mask to school was forced to remove it and replace it with one the school approved.
On Monday, her parents, Matthew and Jennifer Booth, filed a federal lawsuit alleging religious discrimination.
The lawsuit notes that the school’s “Religious Speech Policy 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.”
The lawsuit states that the censorship of the student’s religious message, and the “Religious Speech Policy and practice on which that censorship is based, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
On October 8, the Booth’s daughter, Lydia, wore the mask to Simpson Central School. During a computer class, the teacher told her she could not wear a mask with words on it but did not instruct her to remove it, the lawsuit alleges. When Lydia informed her mother Jennifer, Jennifer was confused because Lydia had worn the mask before without any problem and had seen other students with masks that had words on them, according to the lawsuit. Jennifer then researched whether the school’s policy barred masks with words.
The lawsuit asserts that unable to find such a reference, Jennifer then posted on Facebook that Lydia would wear the mask again on October 13. That morning, the school’s principal contacted Jennifer Booth and said that Lydia’s mask violated the school’s dress code, according to the lawsuit. The code prohibits “clothing, advertising, alcoholic beverages or drug culture, clothing with obscene language or gestures or clothing of any suggestive nature.”
The principal of the school poked her head into the classroom and winked at Lydia, and then the teacher’s assistant asked Lydia to change her mask before lunch so that no one saw her. Lydia then replaced the mask with one with a panda on it, the lawsuit claims.
The same afternoon, Jennifer Booth emailed the superintendent of the district and the principal, stating, “I am requesting my child return to wearing her mask TODAY and have an apology to her from the school district.” The lawsuit states that when she was picked up from school, Lydia was upset because she could not wear her “Jesus Loves Me” mask to school.
The lawsuit notes that the “Jesus Loves Me” mask caused no disruptions, upset no students, and no student objected to its message. The complaint also notes that the “defendants regularly permit (the student’s) schoolmates to wear masks, with messages on them. Following are just a few examples of the messages and designs Plaintiff and her parents have observed on other students’ and faculty’s masks: Jackson State University logo; New Orleans Saints logo; ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
The Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Lydia and her family. ADF legal counsel Michael Ross stated:
Public schools have a duty to respect the free expression of students that the First Amendment guarantees to them. 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. Other students within the school district have freely worn masks with the logos of local sports teams or even the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This student deserves an equal opportunity to peacefully express her beliefs.
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