Chris Lange, FISM News
A Mississippi school district has agreed to walk back a school policy prohibiting students from wearing face masks with political and/or religious speech that was put in place after a third-grade student was singled out for wearing a “Jesus Loves Me” face mask and told to remove it.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recently announced that the Simpson County School District reversed its “illegal” policy as part of a settlement agreement in a lawsuit the legal nonprofit filed on behalf of the student’s parents, Matthew and Jennifer Booth.
The suit asserted that school officials violated the First and 14th Amendment protections of the child (identified at “L.B.”) with the policy and argued that they specifically targeted the nine-year-old because her mask contained a Christian message while other students were allowed “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.”
According to court documents, Simpson Central Elementary School Principal Antoinette Woodall approached L.B. on Oct. 13, 2020, and told her that she would have to remove and replace her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask, even though L.B. had worn the mask previously without incident. Two days later, school administrators announced a new district-wide policy barring students from wearing masks or other items that are “political, religious, sexual or inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive to the school environment.”
Simpson County Schools Superintendent Greg Paes also sent a letter to families and staff stating that the 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.”
“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 continued, adding that wearing masks with “school colors, the school mascot or simply having a blank mask is encouraged.”
ADF asserted that the policy and its practice were “overbroad because they sweep within their ambit-protected First Amendment expression.”
“Public schools have no business discriminating against a 9 year old for her religious expression,” ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross said in a news release announcing the settlement. “[L.B.] deserves and will now have an equal opportunity to peacefully express her beliefs,” he said. Ross argued that school administrators “can’t suspend the First Amendment or arbitrarily pick and choose the messages that students can or can’t express.”
ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, echoed the sentiment in a statement, saying that “No student should be singled out for peacefully expressing her religious beliefs.
“Today’s students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public schools demonstrate the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students,” Langhofer said.
ADF specializes in religious freedom cases and currently represents Colorado Christian baker Jack Phillips in ongoing litigation over his refusal to bake a custom cake celebrating a gender transition.
This article was partially informed by a Christian Post report.