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SC Supreme Court will hear Attorney General's lawsuit against Columbia school mask mandate

South Carolina Supreme Court Building In Columbia filer (copy)

The South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia. The S.C. Legislature continues to have sole authority over any changes to war memorials on public property, but it will no longer take a supermajority vote to alter or remove them, the state Supreme Court ruled Sept. 22, 2021. File  

COLUMBIA — The state's highest court will hear a challenge to Columbia's school mask mandate brought by Attorney General Alan Wilson.

The S.C. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Wilson's lawsuit on Aug. 31 at 10 a.m., the court said in an order Aug. 24. 

Wilson sued the city of Columbia on Aug. 19, asking justices to nullify the school mask mandate Columbia City Council passed earlier in the month as violating a provision of the state budget. The language in the budget amendment says school districts and schools can’t use state or federal funds authorized by the Legislature to require students or employees to wear face masks.

Wilson's petition also asks the court to find similar mandates by other cities and school districts in violation of state law and says the city of Columbia doesn't have the authority to impose such rules on schools. Richland County had passed a similar school mask requirement Aug. 16.

City officials have maintained the mask rule is lawful and was necessary to protect children who can't be vaccinated as the COVID-19 delta variant has caused a rise in cases. Wilson in his petition to the Supreme Court said he wasn't challenging the wisdom of public health directives but that the case was a matter of following state law.

Columbia's rule requires masks of students and staff at public and private daycares, elementary and middle schools in the city.

The Richland One District school board voted Aug. 16 to continue its mask requirement. The Charleston County school board also defied state law and voted Aug. 16 to implement mask requirements for students, employees and visitors inside the schools through Oct. 15.

Richland Two trustees took no action on a districtwide mandate but said the district's schools were required to follow the county’s ordinance. 

Richland Two also asked the court to at least temporarily block enforcement of the state ban on mask mandates in schools, ensuring districts don't lose state funding for requiring masks as the number of COVID-19 cases rise statewide. 

The Charleston City Council on Aug. 17 voted down a similar ordinance mandating masks inside schools.

State public health leaders and S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman have recommended that all schools have the right to decide whether to require masks inside and urged state lawmakers to repeal the provision banning mask requirements in K-12 schools.

The Supreme Court, on Aug. 17, ruled state-run colleges across South Carolina could mandate masks as long as the policy applied to both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But the budget rule governing higher education is separate from the one for K-12 schools.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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