SC high court rejects capital city’s school mask mandate

COLUMBIA, S.C. — (AP) — South Carolina’s highest court on Thursday tossed out a school mask mandate in the state’s capital city, saying it contradicts a state budget measure aimed at preventing face covering requirements.

State Attorney General Alan Wilson had sued the city of Columbia after its City Council passed the ordinance requiring masks at elementary and middle schools. City leaders said the mask requirement, which carries a $100 violation fine, was meant to protect children too young to be approved for the coronavirus vaccine.

But Wilson argued the city’s mask rule conflicts with the budget requirement that went into effect July 1 and bans school districts from using appropriated funds to require face coverings.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court sided unanimously with the attorney general. The Columbia ordinance is written so that the burden of enforcing the mask rule falls on school employees, “all of whom have an obvious connection to state-appropriated funds,” wrote Justice John Kittredge.

That means school employees have to choose between violating state or city laws, the opinion reads.

“The City has made clear that every school employee is in the crosshairs,” Kittredge wrote. “Simply put, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the City threatens all school personnel with far-reaching and unknown legal liability unless all school personnel ensure obedience to the ordinances.”

Attorneys for Columbia had argued days prior that city and school authorities could draw from separate pots of money, such as local funds, to enforce mask-wearing. They also claimed the legislature overstepped constitutional boundaries by putting the mask rule — a policy unrelated to state finances — in the budget, which aims to raise and spend money.

“The Court emphasized what we’ve been saying all along, that we are not arguing mask policy, we are arguing the rule of law,” Wilson’s office said in a statement.

Both the court and Wilson have emphasized the legal debate does not touch on whether masks themselves are effective or whether they should be required.

“We fully recognize that strong and passionate opinions exist on both sides of this debate,” Kittredge wrote. “Yet, we must remind ourselves, the parties, and the public that, as part of the judicial branch of government, we are not permitted to weigh in on the merits of the facemask debate.”

The budget provision by lawmakers took effect July 1, when the state was averaging less than 150 COVID-19 cases a day. Now the state is seeing more than 5,000 new cases daily, and deaths are spiking as hospitals become strained at a time when children return to school and vaccinations lag.

The court’s ruling comes as thousands of students and staff are quarantined across South Carolina. Health officials have already tracked more than 3,000 school-related COVID-19 cases this semester, and schools across the state have had to move to virtual learning to try to staunch outbreaks.

Some school districts had implemented mask mandates in defiance of the budget requirement, though many waited for the outcome of Thursday’s court ruling.

The state is also facing a legal challenge in federal court, where disability rights groups and parents of children with disabilities represented by the ACLU sued last month to reverse the state ban on mask mandates.

The federal Department of Education has also opened a civil rights probe into South Carolina and four other Republican-led states with similar bans on school mask mandates, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

Statement from Chester County Schools:

“The District is and continues to monitor updates concerning various legal challenges that were filed in South Carolina concerning the mask issue.

“The District will consult with its legal counsel to determine how the recent SC Supreme Court decision in Columbia impacts Chester County School District’s decision concerning the mask updates, and will comply as necessary. We ask our students and staff to please continue following the masking policy.

“Chester County School District stands by its decision to protect the health of its students and staff, and the rights of our students to receive a fair education in a safe learning environment.”

Statement from York District 1:

“Earlier today, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling against the City of Columbia’s ordinance which mandated that students and staff at elementary and middle schools within the City of Columbia wear masks in all school facilities. 

“Like most school districts, we had hoped that the Court would rule in a way that is more protective of our youngest students who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Today’s ruling does not impact the other case currently before the SC Supreme Court requesting that the Court determine whether local school districts may enforce mask mandates. 

“We anticipate that the Court will rule on that case within the next few days.

Until such time as the Court rules, our District will continue to adhere to the action taken by the Board of Trustees on Monday, August 30, 2021, requiring that students and staff wear masks when adequate social distancing is not possible.”

(Watch Below: SC Supreme Court deliberates on masks in schools)