A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked South Carolina’s statewide ban on school mask mandates, arguing that the provision discriminates against students with disabilities.
Judge Mary Geiger Lewis for the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina granted a motion for a preliminary injunction against the one-year law that had been written into the state’s budget and put school districts at risk of losing funding should they require students and staff to wear masks.
The ACLU of South Carolina had filed a lawsuit against the provision on behalf of two disability advocacy organizations and a group of South Carolina parents of children with disabilities, such as asthma and autism.
The judge sided with the plaintiffs Tuesday, writing in her memorandum opinion, “No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities.”
She compared the mask mandate to schools being required to add ramps “to accommodate those with mobility-related disabilities so they could access a free public education.”
“Today, a mask mandate works as a sort of ramp to allow children with disabilities access to their schools,” she asserted. “Thus, the same legal authority requiring schools to have ramps requires that school districts have the option to compel people to wear masks at school.”
“This is not a close call,” the federal judge argued. “The General Assembly’s COVID measures disallowing school districts from mandating masks … discriminates against children with disabilities.”
The decision prompted praise from the plaintiffs, with Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, saying in a statement that the ruling “makes clear that state legislators and Gov. [Henry] McMaster can’t sacrifice the health and safety of students with disabilities for the convenience of others.”
However, Brian Symmes, a spokesperson for McMaster’s office, said in a statement shared with The Hill that the South Carolina governor “strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and will defend a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their children up to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary.”
The South Carolina Department of Education also released a statement on Twitter, writing that it was working on “reviewing the decision and will provide guidance to schools and districts on its implications tomorrow.”
Judge Lewis found that Proviso 1.108 is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). The SCDE is reviewing the decision and will provide guidance to schools and districts on its implications tomorrow. (2/2)— S.C. Department of Education (@EducationSC) September 28, 2021
South Carolina is one of several GOP-led states to have imposed bans on mask mandates, with leaders arguing that wearing masks in schools should be a personal choice made by parents.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened investigations into South Carolina, Florida, Texas and other states that have imposed school mask mandate bans, specifically looking into whether the limits are preventing schools from protecting the rights guaranteed to disabled individuals under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.