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SC Supreme Court upholds state’s ban on mask mandates in Columbia ruling

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 2:56 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2021 at 4:41 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WIS-TV/WCSC) - The South Carolina Supreme Court has upheld the state’s ban on mask mandates in a ruling that struck down the City of Columbia’s mask requirement for students and staff in all daycares, elementary, and middle schools.

Gov. Henry McMaster said the court made a “sound conclusion,” and emphasized that it was in the hands of a child’s parents when it came to the decision of wearing a mask.

“A parent’s right to decide what’s best for their child is now definitively protected by state law,” McMaster said. “I would again encourage anyone eligible to receive the vaccine to get vaccinated.”

Charleston County School District’s Board of Trustees Chair Rev. Dr. Eric Mack said today’s ruling does not affect the district’s schools.

“I have reviewed the ruling of the South Carolina Supreme Court concerning the City of Columbia’s ordinance requiring a mask mandate in the public schools within the City of Columbia. Neither this case nor its ruling pertains to the Charleston County School District at this time. Therefore, I have no comment,” Mack said.

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.

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.

“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s quick ruling and its confirmation of our legal arguments,” said Attorney General Alan Wilson. “The Court emphasized what we’ve been saying all along, that we are not arguing mask policy, we are arguing the rule of law. The Court has confirmed that a city ordinance cannot conflict with state law.”

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