In what some are calling a victory for religious freedom, elementary schooler Lydia Booth, 11, will now be allowed to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask to school if she chooses.
Following two years of legal proceedings, a settlement has been reached between the Simpson County School District in Mississippi and the attorneys representing Lydia.
“No student should be singled out for peacefully expressing her religious beliefs,” Tyson Langhofer, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel, said in a statement Wednesday.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal-aid organization, filed a lawsuit against the Simpson County School District in 2020 on behalf of Lydia, who was 9 at the time, after school district officials told the child she could not wear her “Jesus Loves Me” mask to school.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in the fall of 2020, Lydia came home and told her mom that she was not allowed to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask anymore, despite having worn it to school before without issue.
Her mother, Jennifer Booth, explained to The Daily Signal, during a previous podcast interview, that she assumed the teacher who spoke to her daughter must have been having a bad day and sent Lydia back to school with the “Jesus Loves Me” mask.
“The principal calls me, and she’s like, ‘We’re going to have to have Lydia swap her mask out,’” Booth recounted, 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, Booth says, the only prohibitions the principal could point to referred to “drug culture, profanity, [and] obscenities.”
Booth continued to contact leaders of the Simpson County School District, about 40 miles south of Jackson, Miss., asking for an explanation as to why her daughter was not allowed to wear her “Jesus” mask to school. The mother was eventually told that the school district’s COVID-19 policy prevents religious symbols or words on masks.
A copy of the policy was sent to Booth, but upon investigation, she discovered that the COVID-19 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 chose to take legal action against the school district because “this year is the mask; next year is the T-shirt. Eventually, you can’t say Jesus’ name in school.”
The Mississippi school district has agreed in the settlement to “retract its previous restriction on masks that have ‘political’ or ‘religious’ content and will allow Lydia to wear her ‘Jesus Loves Me’ face mask to school if she chooses to do so,” Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement Wednesday.
“Public schools have no business discriminating against a 9-year-old for her religious expression,” Michael Ross, Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel, said in a statement.
“Other students within the school district have freely worn masks with the logos of local sports teams or even the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Lydia deserves, and will now have, an equal opportunity to peacefully express her beliefs,” Ross said.
The Simpson County School District did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.
“It is a long-standing principle that students do not surrender their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse doors—and the Supreme Court has so held,” Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow with the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
“Thankfully, the Simpson County School District has agreed to change its patently unconstitutional speech policy, but only after a federal lawsuit was filed,” Perry said. “Schools would do well to remember the constitutional rights of students cannot be simply suspended—during a pandemic or otherwise.”
In light of the settlement agreement, Alliance Defending Freedom has asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to dismiss the lawsuit.
“Today’s students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters,” Langhofer said. “That’s why it’s so important that public schools demonstrate the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.”
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