Senate Armed Services Committee Acts to Shore Up U.S. Defenses

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a version of the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act July 21 that would increase the Pentagon’s budget $25 billion over President Joe Biden’s request.

With this increase, the defense budget would reach $740 billion, a 5.1% bump over the $704 billion appropriated in fiscal year 2021.

The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission that evaluated the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy recommended this increase. This increase also aligns with The Heritage Foundation’s recommendation of growing defense spending between 3% and 5% above inflation. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation)

Inflation was projected to be 2.2% percent in 2022. That number is now low given the recent inflation jumps seen in May and June of 2021 and general inflationary pressure. This means about half of the proposed increase will go to inflation.

Early signs indicate this budget increase enabled the Senate Armed Services Committee to address many of the military’s list of unfunded priorities.

Required by law, unfunded priority lists help Congress understand what each branch of the military needs but that had to be “left on the cutting room floor” due to budgetary constraints.

This move demonstrates that the Senate Armed Services Committee—in a bipartisan manner—is committed to confronting the rising threat of China and increasingly belligerent Russian behavior. In fact, the increase was approved by the massive margin of 25-to-1, with only Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., voting against it.

However, there are still multiple obstacles before Congress enacts this increase. The National Defense Authorization Act only authorizes defense funding and policy, and the House of Representatives still must approve their version of the bill, which then must be reconciled with the Senate version.

Considering that the Senate National Defense Authorization Act was approved with the wide bipartisan margin of 23-to-3, there is hope that the House of Representatives will follow the Senate’s footsteps and work in a bipartisan fashion.

Beyond the National Defense Authorization Act, the money still needs to be appropriated before getting to the Pentagon.

In the appropriations committees, lawmakers are embroiled with the Biden administration’s enormous budget proposal that would massively increase the budget of every federal agency that does not handle the security of our nation.

Further complicating the picture, the appropriations consideration comes in addition to the multi-trillion infrastructure package that is being discussed as part of budget reconciliation instructions.

Congress needs to address the Biden administration’s overall budget and infrastructure package that has serious issues. This includes properly prioritizing national defense by reducing non-defense discretionary and mandatory spending.

To avoid the damaging effects of short-term appropriations that do not allow the military to change its programs., Congress would ideally accomplish this work before the start of the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2021.

Despite the long road ahead, this initial step shows that the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking seriously its responsibilities to build the military for the current environment of great power competition.  

The passage of the Senate National Defense Authorization Act is a laudable step toward properly funding national defense and seriously addressing the challenges posed by China and Russia. Now, the rest of Congress needs to build on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s good work.

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Democracy Movement in Belarus Deserves America’s Support

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya visited Washington last week and conveyed an unambiguous message; namely, that “it’s high time for democratic countries to unite and show their teeth.”

In remarks at the Victims of Communism Memorial, Tsikhanouskaya explained:

This memorial … in no small part is dedicated to Belarusians. …

Indeed, Belarusians found themselves captured in an autocratic cage. This cage is partially a legacy of communism. But the [regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko] only made its walls stronger.

Tsikhanouskaya has become the face of the democratic movement as an opposition leader in Belarus over the past year. She did not intend for that to happen, but only decided to run for Belarusian president after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanousky, was disqualified from doing so after being arrested for organizing pro-democracy protests.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has been dubbed by some as the last dictator in Europe, has brutally cracked down on the protesters, with an increasing number of Belarusians suffering from arrests and beatings in response to their peaceful protests.

According to the latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices by the State Department:

Belarus is an authoritarian state. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections.

Since 1994, [Lukashenko] has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. …

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

Concerning Belarus’ economic governance, The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom reports that Belarus is ranked 43rd among 45 countries in the Europe region, with its overall score below the regional and world averages. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

The index further notes that courts are subservient to the president, who appoints Supreme Court justices with the approval of the rubber-stamp parliament. The state controls more than 70 percent of the economy, feeding widespread corruption, exacerbated by a severe lack of transparency and accountability.

Unfortunately, the suffering of the Belarusian people inflicted by the brutal, freedom-defying tyranny does not appear to be ending anytime soon.

The United States cannot overlook Belarusians, who have been risking their lives for freedom. Ensuring U.S. solidarity with the pro-democracy movement and support for the people of Belarus matter more than ever.

As Heritage Foundation analyst Alexis Mracheck recently noted, a strong case can be made that it is in America’s foreign-policy interest to work closely with Europe, and especially with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, to promote freedom in Belarus.

Given that these like-minded and willing allies of the U.S. border on Belarus and know the country best, strategizing with them about what practical course of action to take regarding the future of Belarus would be desirable.

In that vein, it’s also welcome and encouraging to see that four members of Congress—Democrats Bill Keating of Massachusetts and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, and Republicans Chris Smith of New Jersey and Joe Wilson of South Carolina—this month launched a bipartisan caucus of “Friends of Belarus” in the House of Representatives to send “a message to the world that the U.S. supports those who strive for freedom facing oppression.”

Smith, who authored the Democracy and Human Rights in Belarus bill passed by Congress in 2020, highlighted that “we support the courageous people of Belarus, who deserve true democracy and are fighting against Europe’s last dictator … and his accomplice, Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Indeed, now’s the time for the U.S. to stand firmly with the Belarusian people who aspire for freedom and democracy.

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Inside a Chinese Internment Camp

On Christmas Day in 2020, one Uyghur advocate in the United States was devastated to learn that her sister had been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Gulshan Abbas was a retired medical doctor in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is launching a brutal crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim population. Detained by authorities since 2018, her sister, Rushan, believes that she was taken as a punishment for Rushan’s advocacy work in the United States speaking out against human rights abuses in China.

Now, the Associated Press has caught a glimpse of what detainment in Xinjiang’s internment camps might look like for Gulshan and the 1.8 to 3 million other Uyghurs being held captive. On a state-led tour, the Associated Press reporters were taken to Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center, one of the more than 380 detention facilities in Xinjiang.

Twice as large as Vatican City and big enough to hold 10,000 people, Chinese authorities deny it was ever a “re-education” camp. But old news reports prove that the Chinese government itself formerly referred to the facility as a “Vocational Skills Education and Training Center.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise; the ruling Chinese Communist Party is often caught in its attempts to cover and manipulate the facts.

Gordon Chang joined Tony Perkins on “Washington Watch” to discuss why the Chinese government allowed the Associated Press to tour the center. He called it “damage control.”

Chang believes the Chinese government is “trying to get back in control of the message. But I mean, this is a massive detention center … It covers over two hundred and twenty acres … and it’s just one of many.” Notably, the Associated Press reporters were not allowed to speak to any Uyghur detainees.

The Associated Press report comes amid the Chinese government’s ongoing smear campaigns against foreign news outlets who dare to report the truth about what’s happening in Xinjiang.

Chang believes, “We are going to see more of these public relations campaigns and they’re going to become less and less credible. So right now, I think most people around the world who have thought about this realize the enormity of China’s crimes.”

And the nearly unfathomable scale of the crackdown is made more tragic considering what we learn from survivors of Xinjiang’s internment camps. Chang notes, “We have heard from people who have been in those facilities who’ve been released. We’ve heard from people who have relatives in those facilities. And these stories are just horrible. I mean, horrific.”

Tursunay Ziyawudun, a survivor, recently shared her story at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit.

She recounted traumatic abuses by camp guards, saying, “Once they took me out alongside a young woman in her 20s. Next to the camp police officers, there was a man in a suit, wearing a mask over his mouth. I can’t even remember what time of night it was. They raped the young women. Three Han police officers raped me as well.”

Conditions were so bad, Ziyawudun said some women “lost their minds in the camp.”

At the end of the day, the Associated Press’ government-led tour of a camp revealed very little. But the world already knows more than enough. We know the scale of the issue. We know the “crimes” that can get Uyghurs detained are often simple religious acts. We know that survivors allege systemic rape occurs in the camps. This is more than enough for the world to act.

This article was originally published on frc.org.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.

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Louisiana Congressman Gets COVID-19 for Second Time

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said Sunday that he, his wife, and his son all tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have COVID, Becca has COVID, my son has COVID,” Higgins wrote on Facebook, adding that he and his wife had already tested positive for the virus early in 2020.

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“Becca and I have had COVID before, early on, in January 2020, before the world really knew what it was,” Higgins wrote. “So, this is our second experience with the [Chinese Communist Party] biological attack weaponized virus … and this episode is far more challenging.”

Though there is increasing evidence that the virus may have come from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, there is no evidence that the Chinese government purposefully created it as a biological weapon.

Higgins added that the virus has “required all of my devoted energy,” and that their “prognosis is positive” while requesting privacy and asking for prayers. It is not clear whether he and his family were previously vaccinated.

Higgins is the second congressman to test positive in the past week. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., tested positive July 19 despite getting vaccinated, saying in a statement that he was experiencing mild symptoms while quarantining.

The recent positives in Congress appeared amid a nationwide increase in cases. They spiked over 50% in a week just days ago, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is fueled by the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

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As Ortega Looks to Extend Dictatorship in Nicaragua, US and Allies Must Ratchet Up Sanctions

In 1979, socialist guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega led his Sandinista National Liberation Front in overthrowing the authoritarian regime of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had held power in Nicaragua for more than four decades.

Ortega has held power there now for 26 of the past 42 years, wielded significant political influence in his years out of power, and is up for reelection for his fourth consecutive five-year term in November.

Cracking down on the political opposition, the Nicaraguan caudillo is determined to hold onto power at all costs.

Ortega initially headed a provisional, unelected Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua for 11 years, from 1979 to 1990. The CIA World Factbook reports that,  after democracy was restored, Ortega lost free and fair elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001. 

Ortega finally regained the presidency, with only 38 percent of the vote, in 2006, according to Reuters.  His reelections in 2011 and most recently in 2016, were marred by voting irregularities and claims of fraud. 

As the Guardian reported, the political opposition described the 2016 election as “the most rigged contest in the four decades since the Sandinista leader first came to power.”

In his 15 years in power since 2006, Ortega—along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who has been vice president since 2017—has amassed complete control over the government, the security forces, the media, and key sectors of the economy.

Since 2018, the country has been locked in a political crisis provoked by the Ortegas’ brutal tactical response to peaceful anti-government protests. Several senior officials in the authoritarian regime have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for corruption and violations of human rights.

Nevertheless, Ortega, 75, and Murillo, 70, are laying the groundwork to win another five-year term in office in this year’s elections in November. Writing in The Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer described the Ortega-Murillo strategy to prevail again this fall as simply to “ban the opposition.”

By the end of June, The Washington Post reported, the Ortega regime had charged and arrested all of the major opposition presidential candidates on the left and the right, including the leading candidate, Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of still-popular former President Violeta Chamorro.

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.  The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom has recorded steadily lower scores for the country since Ortega returned to power in 2006 and began to reimplement his socialist policies.

The Index reports:

Nicaragua’s economy remains mostly unfree this year [2021] as it has been for more than a decade.

If market-based democracy is ever restored in Nicaragua, the first step needed to resuscitate economic freedom will be a complete overhaul of the country’s rule-of-law institutions to protect property rights, establish a transparent and reliable judicial system, and expunge the many forms of corruption that flourish under an authoritarian and socialist system.

In the meantime, the Biden administration has imposed additional sanctions in the wake of the June arrests.  It can, and should, take further steps to inflict economic consequences on the regime, as should the other Western powers.

The deeply corrupt and barbaric Ortega-Murillo dictatorship is far worse than the Somoza dictatorship the Sandinistas overthrew more than four decades ago. 

The Nicaraguan people are suffering not only from weak rule of law and a lack of economic and political freedom, but from the government’s denial of their basic individual liberties and human rights.

Lee Edwards, an expert at The Heritage Foundation on communism, has cited Ortega as a prime example “of the lust for power and control that characterizes socialism.”

The Biden administration has taken some steps, but it needs to dig deeper into the U.S. diplomatic, legal, and financial toolbox to ramp up the pressure until the Ortegas are gone.

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Mom Files Lawsuit After Teacher Tells Third Grader She Can’t Wear ‘Jesus Loves Me’ Mask

Mississippi mother Jennifer Booth was surprised when her 9-year-old daughter, Lydia, came home from school and told her that she was not allowed to wear her “Jesus Loves Me” face mask anymore. 

Thinking her daughter’s teacher might simply have been having a bad day, Booth sent Lydia back to school with her mask. Again, the third grader was told she was not allowed to wear the mask at school. 

“The principal calls me and she’s like, ‘We’re going to have to have Lydia swap her mask out,’” Booth recounts, adding that the principal said it was against school policy “to have religious symbols or gestures on her mask.” But upon inspecting the school handbook with the principal, Booth says, the only policy the principal could point to referred to “drug culture, profanity, [and] obscenities.”

Booth continued to contact leaders of the Simpson County School District asking for an explanation and was eventually sent the district’s COVID-19 policy. But after a little investigation, Booth discovered that the policy she received had been modified less than an hour before it was emailed to her to include language barring students from wearing masks expressing religious views. 

Booth has filed a lawsuit against the school district with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization. 

The mom says she chose to take legal action to protect her “kids, my grandkids, and everybody else’s kids, because this year is the mask, next year is the T-shirt, eventually you can’t say Jesus’ name in school.”

Booth and Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer Tyson Langhofer join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to tell this story and discuss why they are taking a stand for religious liberty in Mississippi. 

Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a father and son who used their knowledge of the sea to find and rescue a man overboard off the coast of North Carolina. 

Enjoy the show!

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to welcome to the show Mississippi mother Jennifer Booth, as well as Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Tyson Langhofer. Thank you all so much for being here.

Jennifer Booth: Thank you for having us.

Tyson Langhofer: So glad to be here.

Allen: Jennifer, let’s start with you. This story that we’re sharing today centers around the topic of religious freedom and expression, freedom of speech. And it all started, interestingly enough, with a face mask that read, “Jesus Loves Me.” Let’s dive right in and share a little bit about your daughter. Your daughter is 9 years old. Is that right?

Booth: Yes. She’s 9 years old.

Allen: Tell us a little bit about her and where she goes to school and share a little bit about your community, if you will.

Booth: She’s 9 years old. She’s going to fourth grade this year. She’s a rule follower. She was class favorite one year and superintendent scholar, straight-A student. In fact, when all this happened, that same day, she had received Student of the Month. I mean, she’s a really good student.

We live in a small community in Braxton, Mississippi, really small, like 200. I don’t even think it’s actually considered a city. I think it’s considered like a town or a village because of how small it is. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows your grandma, where you grew up. They know where you live. So really small, tight-knit community in our area.

Allen: Lydia is your oldest, that’s right?

Booth: She’s actually the middle child. I have a 17-year-old who’s a senior this year in high school. And I have a 6-year-old son who is a first grader this year.

Allen: Oh, that’s so fun. Lydia was getting ready to go back to school, and during the pandemic, of course, when kids were going back, they had to wear face masks. And so you were talking with Lydia about this, and she decided that she wanted a very special face mask. Tell us about that.

Booth: Well, it was already kind of bad that they were going to have to wear masks to begin with. Kind of takes away the personal expressions with their friends and they’re going to have the distance.

I wanted to get them a special mask made, however they wanted it, like pick out your colors, what kind of designs do you want? And Lydia, she wanted something with Jesus on it.

We were thinking about different things to put on there. I was like, “Well, what about ‘Jesus Loves Me’?” And she was like, “Yes, that’s perfect.” So one of our good friends, she made it for her. That’s where we got it from.

Allen: That’s so great. So, she gets the mask. It reads, “Jesus Loves Me.” I’ve seen a picture of it. It’s a black mask, and in pink letters, that “Jesus Loves Me.” So she actually wore the mask to school for a little while, before there was any issues, right?

Booth: Yes. She had wore it for two or three months prior without any issue. And then all of a sudden, one day, a computer lab teacher, she was like, “You can’t wear that.” She’s like, “It has words on it.” She said, “You can’t wear that.”

And Lydia got in the car that evening, she said, “Mama,” she said, “I can’t wear this mask because of the words on it.” And I was like, “No.” I was like, “There’s no way.” Because I see teachers and children alike wearing words on their mask of all kinds. I was like, “There’s no way that you can’t wear this.”

So I reached out to some friends, text them, text some people that actually work at the school, trying to see if there was anything to this. Anyways, they didn’t ever hear of that rule either. So I sent her back with it, thinking maybe that Jesus was just kind of hitting a nerve or something with that teacher that day. I was like, well, maybe she was a little convicted.

Allen: So this is a public school, but still, under our free speech, freedom of religion, students, even in public schools, are still allowed to express their faith. Tyson Langhofer, you’re an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom. You’re involved in this case. Share just a little bit from that perspective, the rights that students have even in public schools to still have that free expression.

Langhofer: Sure. So, the Supreme Court’s made very clear on a number of occasions that students and teachers don’t shed their constitutional freedoms when they cross the schoolhouse gates. And that’s very clear.

Now, obviously, there are certain types of rules when you’re in a school setting—that students aren’t allowed to stand on their desk and scream to disrupt the educational process. But if the school allows individuals to express themselves through words on their shirts or words on their masks or other types of communication messages, they cannot discriminate against religious speech, if they allow others to express secular messages in similar manners.

Allen: Thank you. All right. So Jennifer, let’s get back to your story a little bit, your and your daughter Lydia’s story. She wears the mask that says, “Jesus Loves Me,” to school. One of the teachers—after wearing it for several months—says, “You can’t wear that.” Your assumption is, “That teacher must’ve been having a bad day. I’m going to send my daughter back to school with that mask.” So, Lydia goes back to school with the mask. What happens next?

Booth: That morning, the principal calls me and she’s like, “We’re going to have to have Lydia swap her mask out. And she said, “It is against our policy for her to have religious symbols or gestures on her mask.”

And I was like, “Really?” I was like, “You’re going to need to show me that in your handbook, because I’ve looked through it. I’ve looked through everything,” I was like, “And I don’t see it.”

So we literally go hand-in-hand through the handbook, she says like, “I know it’s in here somewhere.” And she’s flipping through, and she gets to the dress code, which you would assume would be the policy. The only thing she can point me to is like the drug culture, profanity, obscenities.

And I was like, “I’m sorry, but Jesus isn’t in these categories, and you’re going to have to give me a solid policy. You can’t just decide you’re going to censor Lydia.” So she was like, “Well, I’m going to get back with the district office, because I know it’s in there.”

Continue, I’m really upset. I’m calling my husband. He’s making some phone calls and digging even deeper into the policies. I’m looking through emails. I’m like, “There’s no way that this is happening. You’re just in shock,” because we’re in the Bible Belt. It’s just not something that you expect. I mean, you see it on media, but you’re like, “That ain’t ever going to happen here. Not here.”

I actually see the quite opposite in their own handbook where they recognize the 2016 Mississippi Student Religious Freedom Act, which is our state-level law that protects students’ freedom of speech as far as expressing their religious view in their work or in anything, so long as they’re not being disruptive about it. And then on the very next page, they have where they recognize the students’ freedom of speech.

So here in their policy, they have the recognition of their state law and the federal law that’s protecting her. And so I emailed them, and I emailed the principal and the superintendent, and then I CC her main teacher, just to keep her in the loop.

I’m just like, “Hey, y’all need to give her her mask back. And you need to apologize, because she didn’t do anything wrong in this case.” The principal emails back, she’s like, “I’m forwarding this to district office.” I’m like, “Well, district office was already on there, but OK.”

So I pick up Lydia and she is still in the replacement mask. She has a black mask with a panda bear on it. And I’m sitting here thinking, “Well, that could be offensive, because isn’t it from China?”

Anyways, the next day was a virtual day for us, and complete silence from the school. Never heard back from the district office. Never heard back from the principal. And so, I was recommended to reach out to the assistant superintendent at that time. So I shot him an email, that way I could have my clear thought all lined up.

And I just asked him, “Y’all are saying my child wasn’t singled out, but how often do your administrators go hunting down a 9-year-old, looking for a specific room, a specific child with a specific mask that says, ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on it?” I was like, “That’s pretty singled out to me.”

And I told them how they were directly violating her rights and that they actually show that they recognize those rights in that policy, and there was nothing that said that she couldn’t have words on her mask. And there was nothing that said that she couldn’t have religious things on her mask, even if it was, it shouldn’t be a problem. It was something you would have recognized. Like, what is this? I’ve never heard of this.

Anyways, he calls me, and he admits to me on that phone call that it was not in the handbook and it was not policy. And I’m like, “Duh! I know this.” At this point, I’m thinking I might know it a little bit better than they do.

He tells me that it’s in the restart plan, which was some COVID measures that were sent out at the beginning of the school year to lay out the bus plan, where they would be wearing masks and how often, and the social distancing, just how everything would work and the schedules. So he said it was on the district page, but it was no longer up there, so he was going to email me a copy. I was like, “OK.”

So he emails me a copy of the restart plan. The restart plan, when I scroll down to the mask area, it has a verbiage for no political, religious, obscenity, sexual gestures, or words on the mask.

And I was like, “There’s no way that I missed this.” Especially with the year, with COVID, you’re paying extra special attention to the masking, because I wanted to know how often they were going to be wearing it and where are they going to get breaks and different things like that. I was like, “There’s no way.”

And I really felt like God was just like, “Jennifer, there’s more to this.” He was like, “Let’s see if the document that he said that was originally posted is still archived on the district site.” Sometimes when you take something down—like the person that’s controlling the website will kind of put it not on the forefront, but it’ll still be there.

Allen: On the backend?

Booth: Yeah. When I looked, it was there. And so I pulled it up and I’m looking at the one that he sent me and the one that was originally posted at the beginning of the school year, and I scroll down, and that verbiage isn’t there. I’m like, “What?” I was like, I knew I didn’t see it, but this is crazy. Like, why is that there now?

Allen: You’re looking at these documents and they’re two different documents.

Booth: Yeah. And that was the only difference, was the verbiage about the type of mask that they could wear. And then God’s like, “OK, there’s more to this, Jennifer.”

At that point, I was like, there’s data that’s associated to a document when you create it, when you modify it, and when you send it to somebody. I actually make my living in IT for a local hospital. And so we kind of think of things a little different. It’s really easy to get it, but people don’t think about it.

So I went and I looked at the metadata for the document that he had sent me. And what it tells you is, it tells you the application they used, they used PowerPoint 2016. His license was tied to his name, so it had his name on there. And then it showed the date and the time that he had modified it, which was 30 minutes before he called me.

So if you can imagine the devastation that you’re like, what kind of lengths would these people go to? In this situation, it’s insane to think.

Allen: That’s a lot of shock in that moment, seeing how they are going to great lengths. What was running through your head in that moment when you realized it appears like they modify this document specifically, just to send it to me, so that they could get themselves maybe out of hot water?

Booth: Yeah. And it’s really just devastating. And you’re thinking, “OK, these people are in charge of my child. They are supposed to be protecting my child whenever I can’t be there.” They’re supposed to be role models, and here they are, not only are they violating the rights they’re supposed to be teaching her at the school, but there’s a complete lack of integrity. They’re not taking responsibility and showing my child the way that an adult should act, and the way that I expect my children to act.

I have a million things going through my head. I’m like, “OK, Lord, what else do you have?” I’m like, “Do I need to take my kid out of school and homeschool them?” Because now I’m worried if they will go to that extent, what else will they do? Is my child safe? Are they going to retaliate against my child now?

I went to church that night crying, because it was Wednesday night. I was telling my church family about it. And my pastor was like, “Hold on a minute.” So he texts our local Southern Baptist Association. It’s a group of pastors and leaders in the church. And one of them actually suggested that I contact ADF. Prayed about it. I didn’t do it immediately, I prayed about it. Me and my husband discussed it through the night, then we put in the request the next day, or it may have even been the day prior after that.

Allen: Thank you so much for sharing with us. So Tyson, I want to pull you in here. You work with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group. You all represent all sorts of individuals around freedom of speech, religious freedom. So talk a little bit about when you heard Jennifer’s story and kind of how the process was decided of, “OK, we actually do need to take legal action here.”

Langhofer: Yeah. Well, the most surprising thing about Jennifer’s story to me and the sad thing is that not only did they not have a policy, they modified the policy, or purported to modify the policy, to address that situation. But the sad thing is that this school official actually thought that was going to make it better. It didn’t make it better, it made it worse. Why did it make it worse? Because they targeted political and religious speech.

And if you know anything about the First Amendment at all, you know that the worst thing you can do as a government official is to target certain content of certain speech, the viewpoint of certain speech. And so what it tells you is there’s a lack of understanding in our government officials about what our fundamental rights are.

The fundamental rights are protected by the First Amendment: the right to engage in the free exercise of religion, the right to engage in free speech, and the right to prohibit the government from telling you what you can and can’t say on a specific topic.

So that’s what’s the most concerning, is that they went to those lengths, thinking, “Oh, I’ll make this better. I’ll just modify this policy,” and they modify it to make it worse.

What’s sad, as Jennifer said, is these are the individuals that are supposed to teach our next generation.

The Supreme Court just issued an opinion this term on a topic of a high school speech. And the majority opinion said this, our schools are the nurseries of democracy. If our representative democracy does not protect the marketplace of ideas, it will cease to function.

So what they’re teaching the next generation, like Lydia, is that the government has the right to censor your speech, if they don’t like it, or if other people are uncomfortable with it. That’s the wrong message that we’re supposed to be sending.

And so when I heard that message, I mean, whenever I hear these—I get a lot of inquiries—I’m like, “Well, that can’t be the case. Like, serious, is that really what’s happened?”

I reviewed all the information, and Jennifer was absolutely right. They not only had this policy in writing, but they had modified it to do that. And they had targeted specifically Lydia. So we gave him the opportunity, we said, like, “Hey, do you want to back down?” They didn’t back down, unfortunately.

And so we had to file a lawsuit, and after we filed the lawsuit, they finally said, “OK, Lydia can wear the masks to school. And we’ll remove this prohibition on religious and political speech.” But they haven’t acknowledged that what they did to Lydia was wrong.

So they’re continuing to send this message to the students that what the school did was right and what Lydia did was wrong, and that’s not right. And that’s why we continue to fight, because we want to show Lydia that this is the right thing to do. That she stood up and she was right, and that the government protects those rights.

Allen: Share a little bit about where the lawsuit stands right now, and ultimately, what is that end objective?

Langhofer: Yeah. Again, they’ve modified the policy and they’ve allowed Lydia to wear the mask. So that’s great. But what they haven’t done is they’ve not acknowledged that what they did to Lydia was wrong. We essentially asked them, we wanted to settle, and then have them to acknowledge that, but they haven’t. We’re proceeding with the lawsuit. We are waiting on the judge to rule on a motion. And if that motion is ruled in our favor, then we’ll proceed with the lawsuit.

Allen: OK. Great. So Jennifer, obviously, it is no small thing to decide, “OK, I’m going to stand up. I’m going to make my voice heard. And I’m going to take a really bold step here for religious freedom, for religious speech. Why did you decide, “OK, it’s worth whatever costs may come for me to put a stake in the ground here”? Any time you engage in a lawsuit, you’re bringing your whole family with you. That’s a big decision. Why did you decide to make that choice?

Booth: One, because of the conviction that I had had. God pretty much aligned everything. Not only did he give everything, I mean, he gave us our lawyers.

If I wouldn’t have kept going with this and stood with Lydia, not only the long-term repercussions that she could have, because here we are, we’re Christians, so somebody to do something like that to her, what does that do to her faith as an adult? I don’t know if you realize, but a lot of atheists were Christians or grew up in Christian homes and experienced something like that initially.

Not only for that, but to protect her and my other kids, my grandkids, and everybody else’s kids, because this year is the mask, next year is the T-shirt, eventually you can’t say Jesus’ name in school.

And that’s exactly what we’re called to do as Christians, is share the gospel. And if we can’t do that, what do we have?

If you think back when prayer was taken out of school, it took one person. And if everybody would have stood up against that one person, where would our school systems be today?

So I don’t know about y’all, but whenever I was growing up, we had devotion and prayer every morning, and we said the pledge. And look how fast our school systems have just deteriorated over time. No respect for country and for our freedoms and no respect for God, if you look in the media.

So I want them to know that they’re going to have to do the same thing, and we have to fight for what all of our ancestors fought so hard for us to have.

Allen: Wow. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing that.

Booth: I’m sorry.

Allen: No, don’t apologize for crying. It’s really beautiful to see a mom that is thinking in the way that you’re thinking. That is thinking about your child’s future. That’s thinking about your grandchildren and what you are leaving them, what is the country that we want them to inherit, and how are we modeling freedom to them. What does that look like? That’s a really, really big deal.

How has this journey affected your family and even your relationship with Lydia?

Booth: It’s really been a roller coaster of emotions, because you know, it’s really not easy. It’s really stressful to have to deal with all the things, like having to talk to media, and then you have the little negative Nancies. Like, I’ve had some comments where, “Oh, that was really blown out of proportion,” and I was like, “Yeah, the school blew it out of proportion.” I’m like, “She had a positive message and they went after her, she didn’t go after anybody.” Stuff like that.

But it all becomes worth it because amongst that, we’ve had a lot of love and support from our community and from, really, across the nation.

We’ve had thousands of letters and I’ve heard comments on her story, like with the “Unmasked” article, where an atheist was like, “Hey, I don’t believe in God, but I can back Lydia up, because she has the right to do this.” And I’m sitting here thinking, “That might be the only piece of God that he ever reads about or experiences. And if that plants a seed, then it was worth all of it.”

My family, they’re all just in amazement of how God took a censorship of her on a school level to the magnitude that he’s used it and put his name everywhere now. It went from that little bit, he just takes it and just runs with it and you’re just like, “Wow, I didn’t expect it.” It’s just amazing to see him work like that.

Allen: Yeah. That’s encouraging. The Lord is good at doing that, taking small things and then—

Booth: He does.

Allen: Tyson, are you optimistic about this case and where it’s headed? Talk a little bit about why is this case so critical to not just what’s happening at Lydia’s school, but really across the nation?

Langhofer: I am optimistic about the case. The law is strong. As Jennifer indicated, not only do we have the First Amendment, but Mississippi has a really strong law that protects students’ religious speech on campus, and it’s actually mentioned in their policy. We’re right on the law. And I’m confident that we’re going to win that case.

But it’s important, not because of the principle, because that principle’s there, but the issue that’s important is, we have to have individuals like Lydia that are willing to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. And we have to have people like Jennifer, as a parent of Lydia, and says, “I’m going to stand for this. We’re going to protect this freedom. This freedom is vital to who we are as Americans, and we must protect it. And we must stand up for the rights, not only of what we believe, but for everybody to express those beliefs.”

This is a universal belief that should not be controversial to allow a little girl to where “Jesus Loves Me” on her mask. And we should support the people that want to wear contrary messages on their masks, because that’s what makes us America and Americans, and the rights that we have, and we have to stand up for those rights. Every generation has to fight for those rights.

Allen: Absolutely. Jennifer, Tyson, thank you both so much for your time. We really appreciate it. And Jennifer, to you and Lydia and your whole family, thank you for being willing to stand up and put a stake in the ground on this issue.

Booth: Yes. Thank you.

Langhofer: Thanks so much for having us.

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