A 9-year-old student at Simpson Central Elementary School in Pinola, Mississippi, who was ordered by her principal to remove a mask with the phrase “Jesus Loves Me,” is now the center of a lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations.
In the federal lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom against the Simpson County School District on Nov. 2 on behalf of the student, Lydia Booth, lawyers charge that school officials violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they prevented her from expressing her faith.
Lydia, according to the lawsuit, comes from a devout Christian family, and had been wearing a face mask to school for the last several months in compliance with their COVID-19 policy. She occasionally wore a mask with the phrase “Jesus Loves Me.” Other students the lawsuit notes, have used their masks to express themselves, including wearing masks with sports team logos, university logos and the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
On Oct. 13, school administrators forced Lydia to remove and replace her “Jesus Loves Me” mask after deeming it inappropriate. Once she realized her daughter was singled out, Lydia’s mother Jennifer Booth, researched the school’s policy on masks and found it did not prohibit messages on masks.
When she questioned the policy through social media and spoke with school officials, the school allegedly changed the policy in an attempt to justify their discrimination against Lydia’s religious expression.
In a letter to parents, students and school staff on Oct. 15, Greg Paes, superintendent of the Simpson County School District said masks with “inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive” would not be allowed and suggested that the policy existed before school was restarted amid the pandemic.
“We will continue to expect all students and staff to wear a mask at all times in common areas to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. Masks cannot display political, religious, sexual or any inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive to the school environment,” Paes said. “This expectation was outlined in our restart plan and is specific to masks only. The principal and Superintendent will be the final authority on the appropriateness of any mask worn to school. Wearing school colors, the school mascot or simply having a blank mask is encouraged. We appreciate your understanding and compliance with these expectations.”
The lawsuit asks the court to stop officials from enforcing their policy as Lydia wants to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” mask to school but is self-censoring her expression as a result of it. If she doesn’t abide by the policy Lydia could face discipline including suspension.
“No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer who directs the ADF Center for Academic Freedom said in a statement. “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.”