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Groups challenging mask mandate law feel ‘relief’ after judge temporary blocks law

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 8:38 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - For the first time this school year, South Carolina schools can now require students and staff to mask up.

The shift came after a federal judge temporarily blocked the one-year state law limiting school mask mandates on Tuesday, ruling it violates the rights of students with disabilities.

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 educational facilities.”

“This is not a close call. The General Assembly’s COVID measures disallowing school districts from mandating masks, as found in Proviso 1.108, discriminates against children with disabilities,” Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote in her ruling.

The ACLU of South Carolina filed a lawsuit in August in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina in Columbia on behalf of two disability advocacy organizations and nine South Carolina parents of children with disabilities, including asthma and autism. Gov. Henry McMaster, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, and Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman are listed as defendants, along with the Greenville County School Board, the Horry County School Board, the Lexington One School Board, the Oconee County School Board, the Dorchester Two School Board, the Charleston County School Board, and the Pickens County School Board.

“Not only did it make our day, it was such a relief to see,” Able South Carolina President and CEO Kimberly Tissot said of Tuesday’s ruling. Her organization was among the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit claimed the mask mandate proviso violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which both prohibit discrimination based on disability.

Additionally, it cites the CDC and medical studies that have found people with some disabilities can be at greater risk for infection and severe illness from COVID.

“It feels a little bit ridiculous that we’re having to fight this fight, that there’s so much opposition to the idea that we should wear masks to ensure that the most vulnerable children in our schools have equal access to their classrooms,” said Allen Chaney, the ACLU of South Carolina’s director of legal advocacy.

Wilson and McMaster both said Wednesday that they plan to appeal, with the governor saying a notice of appeal had already been filed.

“I disagree 100% with the opinion of the district judge, and I believe that parents should have the final word in whether their children should be required to wear masks in school, and we will take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary,” McMaster told reporters.

The lawsuit will next move to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chaney said while the appeals process can last a long time, he expects the governor to take advantage of a legal mechanism to expedite this process.

“I feel confident in the legal arguments we’ve raised in the district court and will continue to rise in the Fourth Circuit,” Chaney said.

Tissot said she is confident the ruling will stand.

“I honestly don’t know how it can be reversed at this point,” she said. “This is a clear violation of disability rights, and I just cannot imagine that any court system would reverse it.”

Following the ruling, State Superintendent Molly Spearman issued guidance to school districts, saying they now have the power to impose mask requirements and advising them to consult with their lawyers on how to accommodate students with disabilities.

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