For the last several months we have all been exhorted, even commanded, to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19 — unless, that is, your mask says, “Jesus Loves Me.”
The Simpson County School District in Pinola, Miss., recently banned a third-grade student from wearing a face mask with that positive message displayed.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Booth family, naming Simpson County School District, the Board of Education for Simpson County, Superintendent Greg Paes, Assistant Superintendent Robert Sanders, and Simpson Central School Principal Antoinette Woodall as defendants.
The lawsuit claims that on Oct. 13, 2020, Lydia Booth was told to remove her mask because it violated school policy that prohibits political or religious messages.
The suit claims, however, “Defendants allow students at SCS to wear masks and other clothing with a wide variety of expressive messages during school, including ‘Black Lives Matter’ and masks and shirts promoting many sports teams.”
The suit says that banning her mask message violates Booth’s First Amendment freedoms.
ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross said:
“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.”
The student’s mother, Jennifer Booth, claims to have tried to contact the school multiple times before filing the lawsuit. She says that the student handbook does not prohibit her daughter’s mask. The school responded by sending her the school’s plan to amend the policy to prohibit religious and political messages. The school made the change after telling Booth to remove her mask.
ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said, “No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students.”
The school district’s superintendent Greg Paes sent out a letter that read, “The Simpson County School District does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, marital status or age in admission or access to, or treatment of employment in, its programs or activities.”
The letter continued, “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 wrote on, “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.”
ADF attorneys are asking for the court to provide immediate injunctive and declarative relief so Lydia Booth and other students with sincerely held religious beliefs can wear masks with “positive and uplifting religious messages.”