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SC AG says Columbia school mask mandate ‘violates state law’

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 4:15 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2021 at 6:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In a letter to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, the South Carolina attorney general says the mayor’s recent ordinance requiring day cares and elementary and middle schools to require masks goes against state law.

According to a temporary law in the state budget, also known as a proviso, schools cannot use any state funds to require that students or staff wear a mask in school. The law also prohibits the use of state funds to announce or enforce a mask requirement.

READ | Here are the temporary SC laws related to COVID-19, schools, masks and vaccines

Last week, Mayor Steve Benjamin issued a state of emergency for the city of Columbia that includes a requirement for everyone to wear a face covering in Columbia day cares and schools that serve children up to age 14.

Benjamin said it was in response to the recent rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant, especially among children under the age of 12 who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson believes what Benjamin did is illegal.

“While the proviso does not mention municipalities, it is clear from both a plain reading of its language and from the intent expressed by legislative leaders that the General Assembly does not believe that school students or employees should be subject to facemasks mandates,” Wilson wrote. “While we appreciate the efforts of city leaders around the state to protect their populace from the spread of the COV1D-19 virus and variants of it, these efforts must conform to state law.”

Benjamin said because he is providing the masks using city funds and city fire marshals will enforce the mask ordinance, it does not go against the state law Wilson is citing.

Wilson’s letter gives Benjamin a deadline of Friday, Aug. 13 to “bring the city’s facemask ordinances for schools into compliance with state law.”

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But when the mayor announced the ordinance, he said he knows this move can face legal challenges, and he seems ready for them.

“We are fully prepared to hold that position, fight that position all the way to the Supreme Court,” Benjamin said.

Indeed, on the same day Wilson wrote to the mayor, Benjamin issued the following statement:

“We appreciate the Attorney General’s letter explaining the state’s position, however we fundamentally disagree with his opinion that our emergency mandates stand in violation with state law.

“Our City government has a constitutional authority and responsibility to preserve the lives, safety, health and welfare of our city and our citizens. This at times requires we must act swiftly and decisively on an emergency basis, and we are assured we are not in violation of state law, and are prepared to defend our position.

“We are in the midst of a steep rise in infections in the greatest pandemic in over 100 years and ask our state leaders to step back from viewing this matter as one of conflict between the City and state, and rather stand with us to help find the solutions that will best protect our children and teachers, and keep them safe and healthy when school resumes next week.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

Read Wilson’s full letter to Benjamin:

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