A Mississippi elementary school that allowed students to wear “Black Lives Matter” masks to slow the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic ordered a third-grade girl to remove her “Jesus Loves Me” mask. On Monday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit defending her First Amendment rights.
The student, Lydia Booth, aimed to peacefully share her Christian faith by wearing the “Jesus Loves Me” mask. She wore the mask without disruption or incident on October 13, but the principal at her school demanded she remove and replace it. Two days later, Simpson County School District administrators announced a policy prohibiting masks that are “political, religious, sexual or inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive to the school environment.”
“Public schools have a duty to respect the free expression of students that the First Amendment guarantees to them,” ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross said 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.”
According to the lawsuit, the school has allowed students to wear masks with the logos of local sports teams or even the political slogan “Black Lives Matter.”
“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,” Ross argued.
Lydia Booth’s mother, Jennifer Booth, repeatedly contacted school officials, noting that the school handbook had no policy limiting her daughter’s religious expression. The mother also cited the Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment, which should protect her daughter’s “Jesus Loves Me” mask.
A school official responded to the mother by giving her a copy of the school’s plan addressing the coronavirus pandemic, but the response included retroactive modifications including a ban on religious messages on face masks, that were not in the original plan. The school district announced the new ban on religious messages the very next day after the official spoke with Booth.
“No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement.
The lawsuit asks the court to prevent officials from abridging students’ free speech. A favorable ruling would allow the third-grade girl to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” mask, just as other students can wear their “Black Lives Matter” masks. Under the current policy, the school may subject her to escalating discipline, up to and including suspension, for wearing the “Jesus Loves Me” mask.
While the message “Black Lives Matter” need not be divisive, self-described Marxists lead the official Black Lives Matter movement, which has arguably encouraged rioting by condemning the police shootings of black men even when they had rushed at police while armed.
“Black Lives Matter” masks do express a political message and if those masks are allowed, “Jesus Loves Me” masks should also be allowed.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.