JACKSON, Miss. — Attorneys representing an elementary school student and her parents have filed a lawsuit against a Mississippi school district as the girl was prohibited from wearing a face mask that read “Jesus loves me.”
According to the legal challenge, the Simpson County School District modified its mask policy to state that “political, religious, sexual, or inappropriate statements” are not allowed on face coverings after the student’s mother contacted officials about an alleged infringement of her daughter’s rights.
Last month, Lydia Booth, a third grade student at Simpson Central Elementary School in Pinola, was told by her computer teacher that she could not wear a mask with words on it. The girl told her mother, who was perplexed as students and faculty wear messaged masks on a regular basis, including those that read “black lives matter” or feature the logo of their favorite sports team.
Mrs. Booth looked into school policy but could find no prohibition on having words on one’s mask. Her daughter therefore continued to wear the face covering to school.
But the following week, a teacher’s assistant asked L.B. to put on a different mask before she went to the cafeteria so “no one sees her,” the complaint states. The student complied and refrained from wearing her “Jesus loves me” mask for the rest of the school day.
Principal Antoinette Woodall soon called Mrs. Booth to advise that her daughter had been instructed to wear a replacement mask and that the student handbook prohibits religious messaging. But Booth could find no such policy and soon sent an email demanding that her daughter be allowed to wear the face covering.
“According to the Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act that took effect July 1, 2013, you are prohibited from discriminating against students by their expression of religious perspectives,” she wrote. “There isn’t any policy mentioned in the handbook that goes against this First Amendment right for my child.”
Booth rather noted that the Religious Freedom Act is cited in the handbook, in a page that outlines that the law “prohibits local school districts from discriminating against students based on their expression of religious perspectives.”
Woodall consequently forwarded Booth’s message to district officials, and Booth also sent an email to Assistant Superintendent Robert Sanders. Sanders consequently called Booth to advise that the religious messaging prohibition is not in the student handbook but rather the COVID “restart policy” that had been posted to the district website and later deleted.
However, Booth says that when she investigated the restart policy, she found — through analyzing the metadata — that the original text contained no prohibition on religious and political messaging, and that the addition was not made until 15 minutes before Sanders made the phone call.
The following day, Superintendent Greg Paes sent out an email to all parents, students and staff in the school district to note that “[m]asks cannot display political, religious, sexual, or any inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or may be deemed distractive to the school environment.” A week later, Principal Woodall made a similar announcement over the loudspeaker.
Therefore, the Booth family obtained legal assistance from the religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has now filed suit.
“Non-disruptive, private student expression is protected by the First Amendment,” it reads. “Defendants’ censorship of L.B.’s religious mask while permitting masks and t-shirts with secular messages is viewpoint discrimination, which is unconstitutional in any type of forum.”
“The defendants’ interpretation and application of their religious speech policy and practice chill L.B.’s freedom of religious expression and exercise, both of which are fundamental rights guaranteed to L.B. by the First Amendment,” the complaint states.
The district has yet to comment on the matter.
“Public schools have a duty to respect the free expression of students that the First Amendment guarantees to them,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross in a statement. “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,’” he outlined. “This student deserves an equal opportunity to peacefully express her beliefs.”