SC Supreme Court says Columbia mask mandate violates the law

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 3:04 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2021 at 6:35 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In a 5-0 decision the South Carolina Supreme Court has struck down the City of Columbia’s mask requirement for students and staff in all daycares, elementary, and middle schools.

On Tuesday, the State Supreme Court heard from South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and lawyers representing the City of Columbia. Wilson’s team argued that the city’s requirement went against a temporary law written into the state budget, also known as a proviso.

The proviso reads, “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. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.”

In the opinion written by Justice John Kittredge, the Supreme Court refutes the City of Columbia’s argument that by using city funds to enforce the mandate, it doesn’t conflict with this state law.

“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,” the ruling stated.

In fact, Kittredge argues this section of the budget, which was passed in June, is written “clearly” and that the city’s legal opinion is “incorrect.”

In what the opinion calls the “most important underlying issue in the case,” the opinion writes that the state Supreme Court does not have the right to revoke a policy made by state legislature.

“We fully recognize that strong and passionate opinions exist on both sides of this debate,” Kittredge writes. “Yet, we must remind ourselves, the parties, and the public that, as part of the judicial branch of government, we are not permitted to weigh in on the merits of the facemask debate.”

Another legal point that is refuted in this opinion is that the City of Columbia can use the Home Rule Act to enact this mask mandate.

“The Home Rule doctrine in no manner serves as a license for local governments to countermand a legislative enactment by the General Assembly, nor has this Court ever construed it in that manner,” the opinion states.

At the end of the opinion the state Supreme Court writes that absent a constitutional issue, “The supreme legislative power in this state is vested in the South Carolina General Assembly, not a local government.”

Justice Hearn agreed with the ruling, but wrote in a separate opinion, “While I wholeheartedly agree with the result, I feel the majority unnecessarily departs from the stated goal of remaining neutral on the policy decisions of both the General Assembly and the City of Columbia.” Justice Beatty concurred with Hearn’s opinion.

“The City of Columbia’s stance is the same now as it was before we enacted our emergency ordinance requiring masks in our elementary and middle schools: we will always act to preserve and protect the health and safety of our children. This is 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. With record numbers of our children falling ill to this deadly virus, we pray for our children,” said Mayor Benjamin in a statement to WIS.

To view the entire briefing, see below:

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