S.C. top court upholds state’s ban on school mask mandates

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 2:58 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2021 at 2:59 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the city of Columbia in its battle to enact a mask mandate for students.

A stipulation in the state budget bans such mask mandates, but the city tried to get around it by declaring a state of emergency.

State Attorney General Alan Wilson took the city to court, and the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Tuesday.

Wilson’s team argued that the city’s requirement went against the stipulation in the budget that’s known as a proviso.

The proviso reads, “No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.”

In the opinion written by Justice John Kittredge, the Supreme Court refutes the city of Columbia’s argument that by using city funds to enforce the mandate, it doesn’t conflict with this state law.

“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, as proven by the terms of the ordinances themselves,” the ruling stated.

In fact, Kittredge argues this section of the budget, which was passed in June, is written “clearly” and that the city’s legal opinion is “incorrect.”

In what the opinion calls the “most important underlying issue in the case,” the opinion writes that the state Supreme Court does not have the right to revoke a policy made by state Legislature.

“We fully recognize that strong and passionate opinions exist on both sides of this debate,” Kittredge writes. “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.”

Another legal point that is refuted in this opinion is that the city of Columbia can use the Home Rule Act to enact this mask mandate.

“The Home Rule doctrine in no manner serves as a license for local governments to countermand a legislative enactment by the General Assembly, nor has this Court ever construed it in that manner,” the opinion states.

At the end of the opinion, the state court writes that absent a constitutional issue, “The supreme legislative power in this state is vested in the South Carolina General Assembly, not a local government.”

Justice Kaye G. Hearn agreed with the ruling, but wrote in a separate opinion, “While I wholeheartedly agree with the result, I feel the majority unnecessarily departs from the stated goal of remaining neutral on the policy decisions of both the General Assembly and the City of Columbia.” Justice Donald W. Beatty concurred with Hearn’s opinion.

School districts across the Palmetto State have been battling a rising tide of COVID cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Recent data shows South Carolina has the worst rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the country, just slightly ahead of Alabama and Tennessee.

Making matters worse, the delta mutation attacks children, who were largely unscathed by the initial mutations of the virus.

Experts fear the most vulnerable are children under age 12, who can’t get vaccinated against the virus.

School districts say that without being able to mandate masks, their hands are mostly tied.

In Aiken County, the virus has spread so extensively that 4,000 students, or 17 percent of the school district’s student population, is quarantined.

Several South Carolina school districts in the CSRA have gone virtual under the advisement of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The health agency has said it’s reviewing its options to try to stop the spread.

The clock may be ticking, as the CSRA on Wednesday saw its first known child death due to COVID.

In reaction to the ruling, Wilson said: “We appreciate the Supreme Court’s quick ruling and its confirmation of our legal arguments. The Court emphasized what we’ve been saying all along, that we are not arguing mask policy, we are arguing the rule of law. The Court has confirmed that a city ordinance cannot conflict with state law.”

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WIS