S. Carolina Supreme Court adjourns without ruling in face mask cases

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 11:01 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2021 at 5:46 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC/WIS/AP) - South Carolina’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday morning on a pair of challenges to the state’s refusal to let school districts require masks for students and teachers.

The state Supreme Court set aside two hours to hear the cases Tuesday.

While the cases are both centered on the Midlands, they have statewide implications. Justices heard from attorneys for the city of Columbia and Richland County School District 2, but then adjourned without a ruling.

The suits focus on an item in the state budget, known as Proviso 1.108, that state lawmakers passed in June. The proviso threatened school districts with losing state money if they required masks.

Proviso 1.108 states, “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.”

The first case involves a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Alan Wilson against the City of Columbia over its mask mandate. The city requires pre-k, elementary and middle school students to wear masks at school.

The second case involves Richland School District 2 requesting an injunction on the budget rule, allowing for the district to implement a mandatory mask policy while legal arguments play out.

Columbia and the school district argued mandates can co-exist with the rule. An attorney for Richland District 2 argued the district has $80 million at its disposal to independently fund the mask ordinance. But attorneys for the state countered, saying teachers are the enforcers of the mandates and they are paid with state funds. As a result, state funds would be used and the mandates would therefore be invalid.

“We don’t want to do this, we think this is an illustration for how unclear the statute is, but we can literally say, ‘Every minute you spend on an announcement or enforcement, you got to write on a separate sheet of paper, and we’re going to pay you out of funds that were not appropriated or approved on [the 2021-2022 budget],” Richland District 2 attorney Carl Solomon said.

“As a practical matter, that is, I think, unworkable,” attorney Susan McWilliams, who represents House Speaker Jay Lucas responded.

Lucas is named in the suit filed by Richland School District 2.

Gov. Henry McMaster, meanwhile, commented Tuesday on the case, insisting it would be wrong for a school district or a government to tell a parent that their child must wear a mask when parents think that is not good for the child.

“I think that any rule, any law, any compulsion to require a child to wear a mask over the objection of their parents is wrong. I think it’s wrong,” he said. “My view is very clear. I think that that law that was passed as a part of the budget, it’s a good law, it’s a strong law, it’s a clear law and I agree with it.”

There was no immediate word on when the high court was expected to issue a ruling. But the justices made it clear they intend to decide on the cases based on the rule of law, not on public safety or politics.

Copyright 2021 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.