Federal Judge Blocks Tennessee Law Banning Schools Mask Mandates

By Bill Pan
Bill Pan
Bill Pan
December 13, 2021 Updated: December 13, 2021

A federal judge has temporarily blocked Tennessee’s government from enforcing a law that prohibits mask mandates in schools.

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, an Obama appointee, on Friday issued a preliminary injunction in favor of a group of parents who argued that their children with disabilities are more susceptible to serious COVID-19 complications without universal masking.

The judge wrote in his 54-page opinion that it is “in the public’s interest to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee’s schools,” and that the state of Tennessee has “proffered absolutely nothing to suggest that any harm would come from allowing individual school districts to determine what is best for their schools.”

Tennessee’s new state law, according to Crenshaw, offers “no protection to students, let alone those that are disabled.” What’s worse, the judge wrote, the state law honors the federal disability rights laws “more in its breach than in its observance.”

“As a part of the federal system, Tennessee certainly has the prerogative to enact laws protecting its citizens, but that right is limited by the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which ‘provides a clear rule that federal law “shall be the supreme Law of the Land,”‘” Crenshaw added.

The school mask restriction was a part of a legislative package, which bans government entities from implementing mask mandates unless in a specifically dire situation. Under the new law, signed by Gov. Bill Lee in November, it would require the governor to declare a state of emergency and the county to report at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents within a 14-day period for a mandate to be implemented.

Lee in August signed an executive order that required school districts to allow families to opt out of any universal mask mandates or requirements. The order was extended through Nov. 5 and was suspended after the mask-restricting bill became law.

“While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important,” Lee said in August when he signed the order. “Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being.”

Lee also argued that it does not help mitigate the COVID-19’s impact on hospitals by forcing children, who rarely experience severe COVID-19 symptoms, to wear masks.

“Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach,” he said.

Lee’s office said it could not comment on pending litigation.

Bill Pan