Mississippi mother Jennifer Booth was surprised when her 9-year-old daughter, Lydia, came home from school and told her that she was not allowed to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask anymore. 

Thinking her daughter’s teacher might simply have been having a bad day, Booth sent Lydia back to school with her mask. Again, the third grader was told she was not allowed to wear the mask at school. 

“The principal calls me and she’s like, ‘We’re going to have to have Lydia swap her mask out,'” Booth recounts, adding that the principal said it was against school policy “to have religious symbols or gestures on her mask.” But upon inspecting the school handbook with the principal, Booth says, the only policy the principal could point to referred to “drug culture, profanity, [and] obscenities.”

Booth continued to contact leaders of the Simpson County School District asking for an explanation and was eventually sent the district’s COVID-19 policy. But after a little investigation, Booth discovered that the policy she received had been modified less than an hour before it was emailed to her to include language barring students from wearing masks expressing religious views. 

Booth has filed a lawsuit against the school district with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization. 

The mom says she chose to take legal action to protect her “kids, my grandkids, and everybody else’s kids, because this year is the mask, next year is the T-shirt, eventually you can’t say Jesus’ name in school.”

Booth and Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer Tyson Langhofer join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to tell this story and discuss why they are taking a stand for religious liberty in Mississippi. 

Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a father and son who used their knowledge of the sea to find and rescue a man overboard off the coast of North Carolina. 

Enjoy the show!

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to welcome to the show Mississippi mother Jennifer Booth, as well as Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Tyson Langhofer. Thank you all so much for being here.

Jennifer Booth:
Thank you for having us.

Tyson Langhofer: So glad to be here.

Allen: Jennifer, let’s start with you. This story that we’re sharing today centers around the topic of religious freedom and expression, freedom of speech. And it all started, interestingly enough, with a face mask that read, “Jesus Loves Me.” Let’s dive right in and share a little bit about your daughter. Your daughter is 9 years old. Is that right?

Booth: Yes. She’s 9 years old.

Allen: Tell us a little bit about her and where she goes to school and share a little bit about your community, if you will.

She’s 9 years old. She’s going to fourth grade this year. She’s a rule follower. She was class favorite one year and superintendent scholar, straight-A student. In fact, when all this happened, that same day, she had received Student of the Month. I mean, she’s a really good student.

We live in a small community in Braxton, Mississippi, really small, like 200. I don’t even think it’s actually considered a city. I think it’s considered like a town or a village because of how small it is. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows your grandma, where you grew up. They know where you live. So really small, tight-knit community in our area.

Allen: Lydia is your oldest, that’s right?

She’s actually the middle child. I have a 17-year-old who’s a senior this year in high school. And I have a 6-year-old son who is a first grader this year.

Allen: Oh, that’s so fun. Lydia was getting ready to go back to school, and during the pandemic, of course, when kids were going back, they had to wear face masks. And so you were talking with Lydia about this, and she decided that she wanted a very special face mask. Tell us about that.

Well, it was already kind of bad that they were going to have to wear masks to begin with. Kind of takes away the personal expressions with their friends and they’re going to have the distance.

I wanted to get them a special mask made, however they wanted it, like pick out your colors, what kind of designs do you want? And Lydia, she wanted something with Jesus on it.

We were thinking about different things to put on there. I was like, “Well, what about ‘Jesus Loves Me’?” And she was like, “Yes, that’s perfect.” So one of our good friends, she made it for her. That’s where we got it from.

Allen: That’s so great. So, she gets the mask. It reads, “Jesus Loves Me.” I’ve seen a picture of it. It’s a black mask, and in pink letters, that “Jesus Loves Me.” So she actually wore the mask to school for a little while, before there was any issues, right?

Yes. She had wore it for two or three months prior without any issue. And then all of a sudden, one day, a computer lab teacher, she was like, “You can’t wear that.” She’s like, “It has words on it.” She said, “You can’t wear that.”

And Lydia got in the car that evening, she said, “Mama,” she said, “I can’t wear this mask because of the words on it.” And I was like, “No.” I was like, “There’s no way.” Because I see teachers and children alike wearing words on their mask of all kinds. I was like, “There’s no way that you can’t wear this.”

So I reached out to some friends, text them, text some people that actually work at the school, trying to see if there was anything to this. Anyways, they didn’t ever hear of that rule either. So I sent her back with it, thinking maybe that Jesus was just kind of hitting a nerve or something with that teacher that day. I was like, well, maybe she was a little convicted.

Allen: So this is a public school, but still, under our free speech, freedom of religion, students, even in public schools, are still allowed to express their faith. Tyson Langhofer, you’re an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom. You’re involved in this case. Share just a little bit from that perspective, the rights that students have even in public schools to still have that free expression.

Sure. So, the Supreme Court’s made very clear on a number of occasions that students and teachers don’t shed their constitutional freedoms when they cross the schoolhouse gates. And that’s very clear.

Now, obviously, there are certain types of rules when you’re in a school setting—that students aren’t allowed to stand on their desk and scream to disrupt the educational process. But if the school allows individuals to express themselves through words on their shirts or words on their masks or other types of communication messages, they cannot discriminate against religious speech, if they allow others to express secular messages in similar manners.

Allen: Thank you. All right. So Jennifer, let’s get back to your story a little bit, your and your daughter Lydia’s story. She wears the mask that says, “Jesus Loves Me,” to school. One of the teachers—after wearing it for several months—says, “You can’t wear that.” Your assumption is, “That teacher must’ve been having a bad day. I’m going to send my daughter back to school with that mask.” So, Lydia goes back to school with the mask. What happens next?

That morning, the principal calls me and she’s like, “We’re going to have to have Lydia swap her mask out. And she said, “It is against our policy for her to have religious symbols or gestures on her mask.”

And I was like, “Really?” I was like, “You’re going to need to show me that in your handbook, because I’ve looked through it. I’ve looked through everything,” I was like, “And I don’t see it.”

So we literally go hand-in-hand through the handbook, she says like, “I know it’s in here somewhere.” And she’s flipping through, and she gets to the dress code, which you would assume would be the policy. The only thing she can point me to is like the drug culture, profanity, obscenities.

And I was like, “I’m sorry, but Jesus isn’t in these categories, and you’re going to have to give me a solid policy. You can’t just decide you’re going to censor Lydia.” So she was like, “Well, I’m going to get back with the district office, because I know it’s in there.”

Continue, I’m really upset. I’m calling my husband. He’s making some phone calls and digging even deeper into the policies. I’m looking through emails. I’m like, “There’s no way that this is happening. You’re just in shock,” because we’re in the Bible Belt. It’s just not something that you expect. I mean, you see it on media, but you’re like, “That ain’t ever going to happen here. Not here.”

I actually see the quite opposite in their own handbook where they recognize the 2016 Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act, which is our state-level law that protects students’ freedom of speech as far as expressing their religious view in their work or in anything, so long as they’re not being disruptive about it. And then on the very next page, they have where they recognize the students’ freedom of speech.

So here in their policy, they have the recognition of their state law and the federal law that’s protecting her. And so I emailed them, and I emailed the principal and the superintendent, and then I CC her main teacher, just to keep her in the loop.

I’m just like, “Hey, y’all need to give her her mask back. And you need to apologize, because she didn’t do anything wrong in this case.” The principal emails back, she’s like, “I’m forwarding this to district office.” I’m like, “Well, district office was already on there, but OK.”

So I pick up Lydia and she is still in the replacement mask. She has a black mask with a panda bear on it. And I’m sitting here thinking, “Well, that could be offensive, because isn’t it from China?”

Anyways, the next day was a virtual day for us, and complete silence from the school. Never heard back from the district office. Never heard back from the principal. And so, I was recommended to reach out to the assistant superintendent at that time. So I shot him an email, that way I could have my clear thought all lined up.

And I just asked him, “Y’all are saying my child wasn’t singled out, but how often do your administrators go hunting down a 9-year-old, looking for a specific room, a specific child with a specific mask that says, ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on it?” I was like, “That’s pretty singled out to me.”

And I told them how they were directly violating her rights and that they actually show that they recognize those rights in that policy, and there was nothing that said that she couldn’t have words on her mask. And there was nothing that said that she couldn’t have religious things on her mask, even if it was, it shouldn’t be a problem. It was something you would have recognized. Like, what is this? I’ve never heard of this.

Anyways, he calls me, and he admits to me on that phone call that it was not in the handbook and it was not policy. And I’m like, “Duh! I know this.” At this point, I’m thinking I might know it a little bit better than they do.

He tells me that it’s in the restart plan, which was some COVID measures that were sent out at the beginning of the school year to lay out the bus plan, where they would be wearing masks and how often, and the social distancing, just how everything would work and the schedules. So he said it was on the district page, but it was no longer up there, so he was going to email me a copy. I was like, “OK.”

So he emails me a copy of the restart plan. The restart plan, when I scroll down to the mask area, it has a verbiage for no political, religious, obscenity, sexual gestures, or words on the mask.

And I was like, “There’s no way that I missed this.” Especially with the year, with COVID, you’re paying extra special attention to the masking, because I wanted to know how often they were going to be wearing it and where are they going to get breaks and different things like that. I was like, “There’s no way.”

And I really felt like God was just like, “Jennifer, there’s more to this.” He was like, “Let’s see if the document that he said that was originally posted is still archived on the district site.” Sometimes when you take something down—like the person that’s controlling the website will kind of put it not on the forefront, but it’ll still be there.

Allen: On the backend?

Yeah. When I looked, it was there. And so I pulled it up and I’m looking at the one that he sent me and the one that was originally posted at the beginning of the school year, and I scroll down, and that verbiage isn’t there. I’m like, “What?” I was like, I knew I didn’t see it, but this is crazy. Like, why is that there now?

Allen: You’re looking at these documents and they’re two different documents.

Yeah. And that was the only difference, was the verbiage about the type of mask that they could wear. And then God’s like, “OK, there’s more to this, Jennifer.”

At that point, I was like, there’s data that’s associated to a document when you create it, when you modify it, and when you send it to somebody. I actually make my living in IT for a local hospital. And so we kind of think of things a little different. It’s really easy to get it, but people don’t think about it.

So I went and I looked at the metadata for the document that he had sent me. And what it tells you is, it tells you the application they used, they used PowerPoint 2016. His license was tied to his name, so it had his name on there. And then it showed the date and the time that he had modified it, which was 30 minutes before he called me.

So if you can imagine the devastation that you’re like, what kind of lengths would these people go to? In this situation, it’s insane to think.

Allen: That’s a lot of shock in that moment, seeing how they are going to great lengths. What was running through your head in that moment when you realized it appears like they modify this document specifically, just to send it to me, so that they could get themselves maybe out of hot water?

Yeah. And it’s really just devastating. And you’re thinking, “OK, these people are in charge of my child. They are supposed to be protecting my child whenever I can’t be there.” They’re supposed to be role models, and here they are, not only are they violating the rights they’re supposed to be teaching her at the school, but there’s a complete lack of integrity. They’re not taking responsibility and showing my child the way that an adult should act, and the way that I expect my children to act.

I have a million things going through my head. I’m like, “OK, Lord, what else do you have?” I’m like, “Do I need to take my kid out of school and homeschool them?” Because now I’m worried if they will go to that extent, what else will they do? Is my child safe? Are they going to retaliate against my child now?

I went to church that night crying, because it was Wednesday night. I was telling my church family about it. And my pastor was like, “Hold on a minute.” So he texts our local Southern Baptist Association. It’s a group of pastors and leaders in the church. And one of them actually suggested that I contact ADF. Prayed about it. I didn’t do it immediately, I prayed about it. Me and my husband discussed it through the night, then we put in the request the next day, or it may have even been the day prior after that.

Allen: Thank you so much for sharing with us. So Tyson, I want to pull you in here. You work with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group. You all represent all sorts of individuals around freedom of speech, religious freedom. So talk a little bit about when you heard Jennifer’s story and kind of how the process was decided of, “OK, we actually do need to take legal action here.”

Yeah. Well, the most surprising thing about Jennifer’s story to me and the sad thing is that not only did they not have a policy, they modified the policy, or purported to modify the policy, to address that situation. But the sad thing is that this school official actually thought that was going to make it better. It didn’t make it better, it made it worse. Why did it make it worse? Because they targeted political and religious speech.

And if you know anything about the First Amendment at all, you know that the worst thing you can do as a government official is to target certain content of certain speech, the viewpoint of certain speech. And so what it tells you is there’s a lack of understanding in our government officials about what our fundamental rights are.

The fundamental rights are protected by the First Amendment: the right to engage in the free exercise of religion, the right to engage in free speech, and the right to prohibit the government from telling you what you can and can’t say on a specific topic.

So that’s what’s the most concerning, is that they went to those lengths, thinking, “Oh, I’ll make this better. I’ll just modify this policy,” and they modify it to make it worse.

What’s sad, as Jennifer said, is these are the individuals that are supposed to teach our next generation.

The Supreme Court just issued an opinion this term on a topic of a high school speech. And the majority opinion said this, our schools are the nurseries of democracy. If our representative democracy does not protect the marketplace of ideas, it will cease to function.

So what they’re teaching the next generation, like Lydia, is that the government has the right to censor your speech, if they don’t like it, or if other people are uncomfortable with it. That’s the wrong message that we’re supposed to be sending.

And so when I heard that message, I mean, whenever I hear these—I get a lot of inquiries—I’m like, “Well, that can’t be the case. Like, serious, is that really what’s happened?”

I reviewed all the information, and Jennifer was absolutely right. They not only had this policy in writing, but they had modified it to do that. And they had targeted specifically Lydia. So we gave him the opportunity, we said, like, “Hey, do you want to back down?” They didn’t back down, unfortunately.

And so we had to file a lawsuit, and after we filed the lawsuit, they finally said, “OK, Lydia can wear the masks to school. And we’ll remove this prohibition on religious and political speech.” But they haven’t acknowledged that what they did to Lydia was wrong.

So they’re continuing to send this message to the students that what the school did was right and what Lydia did was wrong, and that’s not right. And that’s why we continue to fight, because we want to show Lydia that this is the right thing to do. That she stood up and she was right, and that the government protects those rights.

Allen: Share a little bit about where the lawsuit stands right now, and ultimately, what is that end objective?

Yeah. Again, they’ve modified the policy and they’ve allowed Lydia to wear the mask. So that’s great. But what they haven’t done is they’ve not acknowledged that what they did to Lydia was wrong. We essentially asked them, we wanted to settle, and then have them to acknowledge that, but they haven’t. We’re proceeding with the lawsuit. We are waiting on the judge to rule on a motion. And if that motion is ruled in our favor, then we’ll proceed with the lawsuit.

Allen: OK. Great. So Jennifer, obviously, it is no small thing to decide, “OK, I’m going to stand up. I’m going to make my voice heard. And I’m going to take a really bold step here for religious freedom, for religious speech. Why did you decide, “OK, it’s worth whatever costs may come for me to put a stake in the ground here”? Any time you engage in a lawsuit, you’re bringing your whole family with you. That’s a big decision. Why did you decide to make that choice?

One, because of the conviction that I had had. God pretty much aligned everything. Not only did he give everything, I mean, he gave us our lawyers.

If I wouldn’t have kept going with this and stood with Lydia, not only the long-term repercussions that she could have, because here we are, we’re Christians, so somebody to do something like that to her, what does that do to her faith as an adult? I don’t know if you realize, but a lot of atheists were Christians or grew up in Christian homes and experienced something like that initially.

Not only for that, but to protect her and my other kids, my grandkids, and everybody else’s kids, because this year is the mask, next year is the T-shirt, eventually you can’t say Jesus’ name in school.

And that’s exactly what we’re called to do as Christians, is share the gospel. And if we can’t do that, what do we have?

If you think back when prayer was taken out of school, it took one person. And if everybody would have stood up against that one person, where would our school systems be today?

So I don’t know about y’all, but whenever I was growing up, we had devotion and prayer every morning, and we said the pledge. And look how fast our school systems have just deteriorated over time. No respect for country and for our freedoms and no respect for God, if you look in the media.

So I want them to know that they’re going to have to do the same thing, and we have to fight for what all of our ancestors fought so hard for us to have.

Allen: Wow. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing that.

I’m sorry.

Allen: No, don’t apologize for crying. It’s really beautiful to see a mom that is thinking in the way that you’re thinking. That is thinking about your child’s future. That’s thinking about your grandchildren and what you are leaving them, what is the country that we want them to inherit, and how are we modeling freedom to them. What does that look like? That’s a really, really big deal.

How has this journey affected your family and even your relationship with Lydia?

It’s really been a roller coaster of emotions, because you know, it’s really not easy. It’s really stressful to have to deal with all the things, like having to talk to media, and then you have the little negative Nancies. Like, I’ve had some comments where, “Oh, that was really blown out of proportion,” and I was like, “Yeah, the school blew it out of proportion.” I’m like, “She had a positive message and they went after her, she didn’t go after anybody.” Stuff like that.

But it all becomes worth it because amongst that, we’ve had a lot of love and support from our community and from, really, across the nation.

We’ve had thousands of letters and I’ve heard comments on her story, like with the “Unmasked” article, where an atheist was like, “Hey, I don’t believe in God, but I can back Lydia up, because she has the right to do this.” And I’m sitting here thinking, “That might be the only piece of God that he ever reads about or experiences. And if that plants a seed, then it was worth all of it.”

My family, they’re all just in amazement of how God took a censorship of her on a school level to the magnitude that he’s used it and put his name everywhere now. It went from that little bit, he just takes it and just runs with it and you’re just like, “Wow, I didn’t expect it.” It’s just amazing to see him work like that.

Allen: Yeah. That’s encouraging. The Lord is good at doing that, taking small things and then—

He does.

Allen: Tyson, are you optimistic about this case and where it’s headed? Talk a little bit about why is this case so critical to not just what’s happening at Lydia’s school, but really across the nation?

I am optimistic about the case. The law is strong. As Jennifer indicated, not only do we have the First Amendment, but Mississippi has a really strong law that protects students’ religious speech on campus, and it’s actually mentioned in their policy. We’re right on the law. And I’m confident that we’re going to win that case.

But it’s important, not because of the principle, because that principle’s there, but the issue that’s important is, we have to have individuals like Lydia that are willing to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. And we have to have people like Jennifer, as a parent of Lydia, and says, “I’m going to stand for this. We’re going to protect this freedom. This freedom is vital to who we are as Americans, and we must protect it. And we must stand up for the rights, not only of what we believe, but for everybody to express those beliefs.”

This is a universal belief that should not be controversial to allow a little girl to where “Jesus Loves Me” on her mask. And we should support the people that want to wear contrary messages on their masks, because that’s what makes us America and Americans, and the rights that we have, and we have to stand up for those rights. Every generation has to fight for those rights.

Allen: Absolutely. Jennifer, Tyson, thank you both so much for your time. We really appreciate it. And Jennifer, to you and Lydia and your whole family, thank you for being willing to stand up and put a stake in the ground on this issue.

Yes. Thank you.

Langhofer: Thanks so much for having us.

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