In October 2020 a principal at Simpson Central Elementary School in Mississippi make a mistake when he told a student she needed to take off her COVID-19 mask a court determined last week.
In a settlement with the girl’s family, the school has now removed the ban on political or religious speech on masks, though they are no longer required.
“The third-grade student, Lydia Booth, wished to peacefully share her Christian views with her schoolmates but, even though she wore the mask without disruption or incident on Oct. 13, (2020) the principal at her school in Pinola required her to remove and replace it,” according to the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Two days later, school district administrators announced a policy that prohibits messages on 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,” said ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross. “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.”
According to the lawsuit, the girl’s mother, Jennifer Booth, communicated repeatedly with school officials before going to court.
Mrs. Booth pointed out to them that the school handbook had no policy limiting her daughter’s religious expression, “and that it, in fact, protects her speech under adopted policies that are consistent with the Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act and the First Amendment.
A school official responded with a copy of the school’s plan addressing the district’s response to COVID-19, but the official’s response included retroactive modifications, including a ban on religious messages on face masks, that were not published in the original plan.
The following day, the district’s superintendent announced this new ban to all parents in the district.
“No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “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.”
The lawsuit asked the court to halt officials from enforcing their policy.
“Booth desires to wear her ‘Jesus Loves Me’ mask to school but is self-censoring her expression because her school has already enforced the policy and promises to continue to enforce it, which could subject her to escalating discipline, up to and including suspension.”
Sharkey Burke, one of more than 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, served as local counsel in the lawsuit, L.B. v. Simpson County School District, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
“The First Amendment prohibits schools from singling out students for their speech, especially religious speech,” Ross said last week. “It’s very simple: What the school was doing is a flat violation of the First Amendment.”
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A very good article; thanks for sharing it.
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