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South Carolina Supreme Court strikes down Columbia's public school mask mandate

Mayor Steve Benjamin said the ordinance was intended to protect children who are too young to get vaccinated, but the court said it violates state law.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson in Columbia, S.C., on April 30, 2021.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson in Columbia on April 30.Meg Kinnard / AP file

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

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five justices ruled that the mask mandate for elementary school students in Columbia, the state capital, conflicts with state law banning such requirements and said it "cannot stand."

Mayor Steve Benjamin announced the mandate for children who are too young to be vaccinated early last month, telling The Associated Press that "adults can make decisions for themselves" but that "children do not have that ability or autonomy."

State Attorney General Alan Wilson sued Columbia 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," because 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 justices said they were not taking a position on mask-wearing and were simply following the law, and they noted that they ruled in favor of mask mandates at the University of South Carolina last month. In that case, the justices held that state law didn't expressly ban mask mandates at institutions of higher learning.

South Carolina is one of five states where the Education Department has launched a civil rights investigation examining whether regulations banning mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities who could be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, defended the state law in a statement 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.

Advocates for the disabled filed a federal lawsuit challenging the mask mandate ban this week. The case is pending.