“Specifically, the ordinances’ enforcement provisions unequivocally place the responsibility to enforce the mask mandate on school personnel, forcing school employees to choose between violating either state or local law,” the court stated.
The ruling (pdf) also invalidates an ordinance implemented by Columbia City Council that required students and staff to wear face coverings while on K–12 school grounds.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a press release: “We appreciate the 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 argued rule of law. The court has confirmed that a city ordinance cannot conflict with state law.”
Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin, who pushed for the mandates, said in a press release that it’s a “sad day for children in South Carolina.”
“What is even sadder is the people who have been elected to protect them, who should always and only act to keep them healthy, educated, and alive, won’t fight for them,” Benjamin said. “With record numbers of our children falling ill to this deadly virus, we pray for our children.”
The decision comes almost a month after Benjamin—citing a rising of COVID-19 cases—had declared a state of emergency in the state capital when he called a special meeting the next day, where the council voted to mandate masks for all faculty, staff, visitors, and children in public and private schools, and daycares that instruct children from ages 2 to 14.
Benjamin argued in the council meeting that the state constitution and city code gave him and the council the authority to mandate masks in schools.
However, the next week after the council’s vote to mandate masks, Wilson sent a notice to Benjamin stating that the council must rescind its order because the state legislature had passed a budget proviso stating, “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 educational facilities.”
Columbia City Council had argued that its ordinance doesn’t conflict with the state legislation, however, the court deemed the claim “without merit.”
“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.”
South Carolina Targeted
The U.S. Department of Education said on Aug. 30 it had opened investigations into five Republican-led states that banned mask mandates in schools, including South Carolina.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) claimed that prohibiting mask mandates could be discriminatory against students with disabilities by denying them safe access to learning.
Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, wrote in a letter (pdf) addressed to Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, that the state’s prohibition of local school districts from “adopting science-based strategies” to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks conflicts with the federal education department’s requirements, which Cardona said is supported by the American Rescue Plan Act.
In addition to South Carolina, the OCR sent letters to chief state school officers in Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah.
Earlier in August, President Joe Biden had said that his administration was “checking” on whether universal mask mandates in public schools could be implemented, however, he stated that he didn’t believe the administration had that power.
GQ Pan contributed to this report.