South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson filed a petition on Thursday asking the state supreme court to overturn a mask mandate imposed by the city of Columbia earlier this month in response to rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths linked to the delta variant of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the petition, the city’s decision to require masks in all schools located within its city limits represents a clear cut example of the city “exceeding its municipal powers.”
In addition to calling out the city, Wilson’s petition also singled out Richland county school district one for “requiring (its) students and staff wear masks” in explicit contravention of a legislative mandate prohibiting such edicts.
To be clear: State lawmakers failed miserably when it came to clearly and coherently addressing mask mandates and vaccine passports when they were in session earlier this year. Rather than passing an unambiguous, enforceable law addressing both issues across all agencies and political subdivisions of the state – lawmakers instead attempted to address both issues piecemeal (and on a temporary basis).
Specifically, they passed three provisos – or regulations contained within the annual state budget – addressing various aspects of the debate.
The result? Chaos.
Only one of the legislative provisos specifically imposed a mask mandate. Unfortunately for Columbia, S.C. mayor Steve Benjamin, however, it is the one addressing K-12 schools.
“No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities,” the proviso (1.108) stipulated. “This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.”
Benjamin’s mandate explicitly violates that proviso – not unlike his previous attempts to unconstitutionally regulate firearms within the city limits.
Wilson informed city leaders over a week ago that their ordinances ran afoul of state law, and gave Benjamin a deadline of Friday, August 13, 2021 to bring the city back into compliance.
(Click to view)
Benjamin (above) not only failed to comply, he has vowed to take Wilson and the state legislature “all the way to the U.S. supreme court.”
In filing the petition, Wilson made it clear he was not taking a position on mask mandates themselves – just the legality of the city’s ordinance.
“Although local governments certainly have an interest in community safety, their ordinances must conform to state law in doing so,” Wilson wrote. “These ordinances and directives do not. While cities, such as Columbia, have strong home rule powers – and we respect those powers – this case is not about home rule. The legislature is the ultimate lawmaker. Its laws must be followed.”
Wilson wants the court’s justices to “take jurisdiction of this case, direct a response to the proposed complaint, and give this matter expedited consideration.”
“We understand and respect the concerns that citizens and governments have about the spread of Covid-19 and its variants,” Wilson wrote in the petition. “This case is not about what policies are best for dealing with the virus. We bring this petition not to choose sides in debates over health precautions. Instead, we ask this court to resolve a dispute over the controlling effect of a legislative proviso regarding mask requirements so that all jurisdictions will be informed about what law governs.”
In fact, in a statement accompanying the filing of the petition Wilson noted that he “encourages everyone to wear masks when appropriate and encourages anyone who can to get the COVID vaccination.”
Benjamin has repeatedly attempted to usurp state control in the past – prompting Wilson to issue similarly explicit warnings. Not only did Wilson make good on his word and take the city to court in those previous cases – he prevailed on the law, too.
Will he win this case?
In fact, in handing Wilson’s office a rare defeat on a separate mask mandate case earlier this week, the supreme court telegraphed its intentions regarding the matter at hand.
In the other case – which involved a mask mandate at the University of South Carolina – justices noted that state lawmakers failed to expressly ban mask mandates at taxpayer-supported colleges and universities.
However in referencing the proviso at the heart of the current case, they noted its language “clearly evinces the General Assembly’s intent to prohibit the use of state funds to require any mask mandate in public K-12 schools.”
Indeed it does … which is why this case is a no-brainer.
Additionally, Wilson has been backed in his position by speaker of the House Jay Lucas and Senate president Harvey Peeler, who noted in a letter earlier this month that Benjamin’s edict was “in clear and deliberate violation” of their budget proviso. Peeler has been under tremendous pressure this week to back down from his position, though.
While the supreme court weighs Wilson’s petition, Columbia schools – most notably those in Richland school district one – continue to enforce mask mandates.
“My son was told he would get written up if he didn’t wear his properly,” one concerned mother told me. “Can they actually do that?”
Guess we will find out soon …
THE PETITION …
(Via: S.C. Attorney General’s Office)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Boston Red Sox lid pictured above).
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