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SC Supreme Court Prepares to Hear 2 Mask Lawsuits

FILE - The SC Supreme Court building
Wikimedia Commons
FILE - The SC Supreme Court building

South Carolina's highest court will hear two challenges to the state's refusal to let school districts require masks for students and teachers this week.

The state Supreme Court has set aside two hours to hear the cases Tuesday.

South Carolina lawmakers passed an item in the state budget in June threatening school districts with losing state money if they required masks.

Back then, South Carolina was averaging 150 new COVID-19 cases a day. Now the state is averaging around 4,500 new cases a day, and deaths are increasing as hospitals become strained at a time when children return to school and vaccinations lag.

In the first case, the city of Columbia is being sued by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson over City Council's decision to pass a state of emergency because of the rise in cases and then to require masks for workers and anyone under 12 in schools. Vaccines have not been approved for younger children.

In the second case, Richland School District 2 is suing the state, asking the Supreme Court justices to suspend the mask ban until it can rule on the previous case.

The lawyers supporting mask mandates are expected to argue that requiring or banning masks has no place in the state budget, a bill whose purpose is to raise and spend money.

The state plans to argue that the salaries of teachers and administrators who would enforce a mask rule are paid with state money, so lawmakers have wide latitude to determine how they want that money spent.

A separate lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that banning masks discriminates against disabled and other medically fragile students by keeping them out of school is currently in federal court.

The state's most visible opponent to mask mandates is Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has repeatedly said that parents should decide whether children wear masks. The governor has suggested that face coverings don't stop COVID-19's spread and harm children from learning and socializing. Top state health officials have refuted those beliefs.

Republican state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said schools should be able to require masks. She has been joined this month by the state's health agency, pediatrician organizations, House Democrats, teachers groups, an association of school board members and a group of two Democratic and two Republican state senators, among others.

Some school districts in the state have already defied the Legislature and required masks. But most districts have decided to wait for the court ruling even as students enter their third week of school and children up to age 20 now account for nearly a third of all new COVID-19 cases in South Carolina.