COLUMBIA — The S.C. Supreme Court unanimously rejected Columbia's new ordinance requiring masks in schools, a move meant to circumvent a one-year ban on such COVID mandates passed by state lawmakers.
The decision came just two days after the state high court heard arguments from attorneys working with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who filed the suit, and lawyers for the state's second-largest city.
The court ruled state law took precedence over the city ordinance passed when schools opened in mid-August amid another surge in COVID cases from the delta variant. Districts were not allowed to require masks on students and staff as part of a budget amendment passed when cases were falling in the spring.
The budget amendment was written with “unmistakable clarity,” Justice John Kittredge wrote.
“We fully recognize that strong and passionate opinions exist on both sides of this debate,” Kittredge wrote. “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.”
The court rejected Columbia’s claim the provision violated a rule requiring that state laws address one primary subject, in this case the annual budget bill. The provision is clearly related to spending tax dollars, the court found.
In the wake of the decision, Richland County said it will not longer enforce its similar school mask requirement passed in August. Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said the district’s mask requirement will remain in effect pending the outcome of a separate mask case in the Supreme Court involving Richland School District Two.
The judges did not dismiss the possibility of passing a mask mandate that does not conflict with the state law but said Columbia’s rule makes clear that school staff paid at least in part with state money would be responsible for enforcement.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he was surprised during the arguments how much the city had relied on the possibility of school staff enforcing the requirement and said school mask requirements could still be possible, suggesting someone could be hired with federal COVID-19 relief money to enforce mask-wearing.
"It may be too tricky for schools to do it all by themselves, but I do think there’s a way," said Stavrinakis, an attorney. "The bottom line is, it needs to be third parties, people who don’t get paid with state school funds."
Associate Justice George James said the Supreme Court stuck to the legal arguments, not the ongoing public health debate.
"In spite of the explosion of public opinion on masks and mask mandates and the sometimes unfortunate manner in which these opinions are expressed, our focus and our authority are limited to applying the law," he wrote in a separate opinion. "It is not within our power to decree which side of the public health debate regarding masks or mask mandates is correct."
Wilson said he appreciated the high court’s quick ruling: "The court emphasized what we’ve been saying all along, that we are not arguing mask policy, we are arguing the rule of law."
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said he agreed with the court's decision and that the Legislature was unlikely going to return for a special session to repeal the budget amendment.
"There’s no consensus on that front, "Simrill said. "I strongly recommend vaccination, wearing masks indoors, for schools to encourage and recommend masking, but there is no consensus to come to Columbia."
Columbia’s mask requirement covered children under 12 at public and private schools because they cannot receive COVID vaccinations. The ordinance also covered staff and visitors at schools as well as day care centers.
"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," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. "With record numbers of our children falling ill to this deadly virus, we pray for our children."
The Charleston County School District approved a mask mandate, and Lexington Two School District, where four schools have gone to all-virtual learning with a spike in cases, was poised to do the same later Sept. 2.
The state Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a suit by Richland Two School District alleging the state's ban on school mask mandates violates students' right in the state constitution to a free education. The case was heard before justices the same day as the Columbia case, Aug. 31.
State public health leaders and S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman have backed letting districts choose to impose mask rules.le
Seanna Adcox contributed from Columbia. This story is developing and will be updated.