A federal court on Tuesday blocked South Carolina from banning school mask mandates in a temporary order that is being contested by Gov. Henry McMaster (R).
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis found in her ruling that a proviso of the state budget that prohibits schools receiving state funding from implementing face mask requirements discriminates against students with disabilities.
According to the judge and to plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the law is discriminatory because students with disabilities are at greater risk from COVID-19 and in the absence of mask mandates they are denied access to in-person learning and other educational opportunities provided to other students.
"A review of the declarations provided by Plaintiffs in this case demonstrate, because of Proviso 1.108, Governor McMaster and AG Wilson have denied the minor plaintiffs meaningful access to in-person education, programs, services, and activities because of Proviso 1.108," Lewis wrote.
Plaintiffs argued that the mask proviso disproportionately affects students with underlying health conditions and denies them equal opportunity to learn in school in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"There is an inherent tension between the exercise of one's personal freedoms and rights, on the one hand, and the government's protecting the health of the public, on the other," the court said. "This case presents the added burden of making sure the government's public health measures are not infringing against one's right to be free from discrimination."
Following the court order, the South Carolina Department of Education issued a statement announcing it is reviewing the ruling and "will provide guidance to schools and districts on its implications."
That guidance came Wednesday, when the education department announced, "the immediate effect of the Court's order is that both the state and local school districts are prohibited from enforcing Proviso 1.108 and school districts now have the discretionary authority to require masks."
McMaster and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a notice to appeal the ruling on Wednesday, the Greenville News reported.
Bans on school mask mandates are being litigated in federal courts across the nation, with varying results.
In Texas and Florida, higher courts eventually overturned lower court rulings prohibiting those states from enforcing their bans on mandatory mask requirements for students. Courts in Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have either struck down or issued temporary orders blocking the governors of those states from enforcing bans on mandatory mask requirements in schools.
President Joe Biden's Department of Education has opened civil rights investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah to determine whether prohibitions on mask mandates in those states unlawfully discriminate against students with disabilities.