Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

Attorney General Notifies Columbia City Council Mask Mandate Violates State Law

Aug 04, 2021 03:47PM ● By David Dykes

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson on Tuesday Aug. 10, 2021, delivered a letter to Columbia City Council and Mayor Steve Benjamin warning them the school mask mandate they passed recently violates state law and the city must take action or face legal consequences.

“It is the opinion of my office that these ordinances are in conflict with state law and should either be rescinded or amended. Otherwise, the city will be subject to appropriate legal actions to enjoin their enforcement,” Wilson wrote to council members. “While we appreciate the efforts of city leaders around the state to protect their populace from the spread of the Covid-19 virus and variants of it, these efforts must conform to state law.”

Benjamin, in response, promised to defend the city's position.

“We appreciate the Attorney General’s letter explaining the state’s position; however, we fundamentally disagree with his opinion that our emergency mandates stand in violation with state law," Benjamin said in a statement. "Our City government has a constitutional authority and responsibility to preserve the lives, safety health and welfare of our city and our citizens. This at times requires we must act swiftly and decisively on an emergency basis, and we are assured we are not in violation of state law, and are prepared to defend our position.

"We are in the midst of a steep rise in infections in the greatest pandemic in over 100 years and ask our state leaders to step back from viewing this matter as one of conflict between the City and state, and rather stand with us to help find the solutions that will best protect our children and teachers, and keep them safe and healthy when school resumes next week.” 

Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas had written to the attorney general to let him know the legislature’s intent was to ban mask mandates in schools. 

The attorney general also sent letters to them saying he had reviewed a budget proviso and he agrees that lawmakers intended to ban mask mandates like Columbia's. 

The legislature passed a budget proviso saying, “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.”

However, Wilson told Columbia City Council members that encouraging facemask wearing by city officials and even requirements for facemasks in city buildings and other facilities wouldn't violate the proviso. 

“Also, parents, students, and school employees may choose to wear facemasks anywhere at any time,” he wrote.

The letter to the mayor and council members concludes by saying, “Please let my office know by the close of business Friday, August 13th what efforts city council will undertake to bring the city’s facemask ordinances for schools into compliance with state law or if any further clarification is needed.”

The Columbia City Council on Aug. 5, 2021, ratified a state-of-emergency ordinance requiring facial coverings for all faculty, staff, children over the age of two and visitors in all buildings at public and private schools and daycares.

The action, which city officials said is needed to slow the spread of Covid-19 within the city limits and was effective immediately, applied to schools or daycares whose purpose is to educate or care for children between the ages of two and 14.   

With less than 45 percent of eligible South Carolinians fully vaccinated by the end of July, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, a surge in Covid-19 cases is pushing the state’s pediatric intensive care units to capacity, city officials said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHEC have determined face coverings help control the spread of the coronavirus, the officials said.

They said the city is authorized and empowered, and had the duty to afford adequate protection for lives, safety, health and welfare by Article VIII, Section 17 of the South Carolina Constitution and the Home Rule Act of 1975.

Those failing to comply could be fined not more than $100.