In a win for religious freedom, a Mississippi school district was forced to change its policy banning religious or political speech, and it was a brave third grader leading the charge.
Lydia Booth began wearing a mask with the words “Jesus Loves Me” to her elementary school in the Simpson County School District in October 2020. When school officials told her she couldn’t wear the mask, the student and her mother were sad and confused.
“Mama, I’ve got bad news,” Lydia reportedly told her mom after school the day her teacher told her not to wear the mask any longer. “She just said it, a little angry, but not much. She told me not to wear it again. Not to wear that kind of mask, with words.”
Her mother thought it must have been a mistake.
“I was looking around, and all these kids had words all over their masks,” Lydia’s mother, Jennifer Booth told Fox News.
Students and staff regularly wore masks with a variety of messages, including college logos, sports team logos, and even politically charged slogans such as “Black Lives Matter.”
Lydia reportedly wore the mask because it helped her feel safe. She also wanted to share the message of love with the other students, hoping it would help them feel safe as well.
“I chose [the mask] because it had my favorite words on it, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and it made me feel safe when I went to school,” she said.
Her mother reviewed school policies and noticed the school handbook protected freedom of speech and religion in its dress code.
Believing there was a misunderstanding, Lydia’s mother sent her back to school the next day with the same mask.
Then she got a call from the principal telling her students were not allowed to “have religious or political things on masks at school.”
When Booth pointed out the school’s policy actually protected students’ First Amendment rights, consistent with the Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act, the district changed its COVID directives, banning all religious and political speech on masks.
That’s when Lydia and her mother decided to take a stand. With the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), they filed a federal lawsuit.
“The First Amendment prohibits schools from singling out students for their speech, especially religious speech,” ADF Legal Counsel Michael Ross told Fox News. ”It’s very simple, what the school was doing is a flat violation of the First Amendment.”
Last week, more than two years after the initial incident, the district agreed to settle the lawsuit. The settlement allows Lydia to wear the mask and requires the district to pay $45,000 for the family’s legal fees.
“No student should be singled out for peacefully expressing her religious beliefs,” said Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel and 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.”