Required to wear a mask to school, a nine-year-old girl wears a “Jesus Loves Me” mask. Nice message, warm sentiment. She is forced to take it off, school policies changed – to bar it. This is anti-American, but an indication of where we are headed – if we do not speak up. See, https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/11/classroom-busybodies-ban-a-jesus-loves-me-mask/.
Unpacking this event, what is wrong with it? Lots. First, every child has free speech rights in school, and a right to free exercise of religion. While limited, presumptions are with the child.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, made clear in 1969 – neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This includes the right to religious views.
The Court limited that right only by “disruption.” If expression does not disrupt, it is allowed. Sharing a non-confrontational, positive, religious view – on a silent mask – is not disruptive.
In 1986, the Supreme Court made clear what disruption looks like, ruling a 17-year-old could not give a speech filled with “sexual innuendos.” The School could “prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse.” One is hard-pressed to see vulgarity in “Jesus Loves Me.” See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethel_School_District_v._Fraser.
More broadly, lower courts have allowed all manner of “school attire,” nose rings, tattoos, dyed hair, strong opinions on shirts. Courts allowed students to wear buttons protesting “scabs” during a teachers’ strike – in effect, confronting those hired to replace their teachers. See, Chandler v. McMinnville School District (1992), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethel_School_District_v._Fraser. .
When a student wore a shirt calling President George W. Bush an “international terrorist,” a mre two years after 9-11, the court allowed the shirt – as not sufficiently disruptive. See, e.g., https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp2/286/847/2522593/.
In 2003, a student wore a shirt supporting the National Rifle Association, with guns pictured. Ruling: Not disruptive enough to interfere with constitutional rights. That case, Newsom v. Albemarle County School Bd., was decided by the 4th Circuit in 2003. See, e.g., https://caselaw.findlaw.com/summary/opinion/us-4th-circuit/2003/12/01/120247.html.
Stepping back, a “Jesus Loves Me” mask on a child should be welcomed – hardly barred. It speaks of love, in a time when adults could use the lesson. While elementary schools get latitude, there is nothing to bar here. And experts note “dress codes, in most cases, cannot be used to prevent students from expressing religious beliefs,” thus allowing turbans, yarmulkes, headscarves, roseries and crosses. See, e.g., https://www.findlaw.com/education/student-rights/school-dress-codes.html.
The irony in banning “Jesus Loves Me” is that the school policy emerged after this child was told to take it off. The policy was invented to block the message. Incredibly, the pendulum has swung so far that schools are reversing policies to accommodate violent messages, while banning a Christian child’s right to state love animating her faith. “Black Lives Matter” attire – tied to violence – is permitted, while messaging around the “thin blue line” is barred. See, e.g., https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nys/rochester/public-safety/2020/10/21/fairport-teachers–staff-again-allowed-to-wear-blm-items-in-school; https://conservativedailypost.com/school-teachers-across-us-being-forced-to-wear-blm-shirts-to-unify/; https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/chardon-board-of-education-supports-ban-on-thin-blue-line-flag-at-school-events/ar-BB18DHgc. The point is that the First Amendment is permissive; similar speech must be treated similarly. If some are against the police and others for them, all should be heard.
In the religious context, administrators should be level-headed, default to reason, not fear the child’s message, reporters, lawsuits, or socialists. This is America, not the Soviet Union – not an atheistic “workers’ paradise” where faith is banished – not yet.
This is a place where we celebrate our differences, respect each other’s commitments, especially those of conscience, hope and faith. We do not read disruption into God’s love of mortal souls.
To be clear: We were founded by daring, faithful, God-loving pioneers, most of whom sought freedom from religious persecution. Later, we became a beacon for millions fleeing socialism, communism, fascism, and wars those political philosophies wrought. In America – was hope.
In a moment like this, remember we are at our best recognizing our freedoms, standing up for them – not caving to fear of leftist cultural forces or government. Americans do not give up.
Objectively, students have 1st Amendment speech and religious rights at school, even if disruptions are not allowed. Students can speak about their faith, and not be treated differently. They can pray in spare time, even before sports. Religious content is not banned, even by a school – for example, at Christmas – if educational. That includes music, art, and plays. America’s cultural heritage is bound up in our faith; not to teach it, is to ignore our culture.
Bottom line: America was built on free speech and religion. That is how we got here. We are a people, young to old, peacetime to war, depression to prosperity, with respect for God’s mercy. If we should lose this aspect of ourselves, or courage to speak for it – defending a nine-year-old girl fighting COVID with faith – who are we, what are we, where are we headed?
As an optimist, I believe we are stronger than we know, that this case will end well, and most of us know the truth. Here it is: Free speech and free exercise of religion are innately American.