South Carolina Supreme Court strikes down city’s public school mask mandate

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a city ordinance mandating masks for public school children, just as the state is struggling with a surge in school-related coronavirus cases.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of judges ruled the city of Columbia’s mask mandate for elementary school students conflicts with state law banning such requirements and “cannot stand.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin announced the mandate for kids who are too young to take the vaccine in early August, telling The Associated Press that “adults can make decisions for themselves” but “children do not have that ability or autonomy.”

State Attorney General Alan Wilson sued Columbia over Benjamin’s emergency order last week, saying the ordinance violates a one-year state law known as a proviso that held that no school district can use “any state funds to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities.”

Lawyers for Columbia said the city would “fund and enforce the mandate” itself, which the judges found unbelievable.

“The notion that City employees would infiltrate the schools and, without any assistance from school personnel and without a penny of state funds, would be able to mandate masks and impose civil penalties for violations strains credulity and, in fact, is demonstrably false,” since the ordinance requires school personnel to enforce the mandate, said the ruling, which was written by Justice John Kittredge.

“This brings us to the real point of contention—may the City enact ordinances in direct conflict with state law? The answer is unsurprisingly and unequivocally ‘no,'” the ruling said, noting that the “supreme legislative power in this state is vested in the South Carolina General Assembly, not a local government.”

The judges said in the ruling they were not taking a position on mask wearing and were simply following the law, and noted that they ruled in favor of mask mandates at the University of South Carolina last month. In that case, the judges held the state law didn’t expressly ban mask mandates at institutions of higher learning.

South Carolina is one of five states the U.S. Department of Education has launched a civil rights investigation into, probing whether regulations banning mask mandates are discriminating against students with disabilities who could be at a higher risk for severe illness from Covid.

A spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster, Brian Symmes, defended the state’s law in a statement to NBC News earlier this week.

“Under South Carolina law, anybody who wants to wear a mask – in a school setting or elsewhere – is free to do so, but the governor isn’t going to ignore a parent’s fundamental right to make health decisions for their children,” Symmes said in a statement to NBC News.

Advocates for the disabled filed a federal lawsuit challenging South Carolina’s mask mandate ban earlier this week. That case is still pending.

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