Gov. Henry McMaster was among the defendants in the suit filed by disability rights groups | Credit: S.C. Governor's Office

A federal judge late Tuesday ruled a South Carolina budget proviso violates the national Americans with Disabilities Act since it effectively bars some students from participating in school by prohibiting school districts from enacting mask mandates.

Analyzing claims from Disability Rights South Carolina and parents who filed suit against Gov. Henry McMaster, Attorney General Alan Wilson and several school district leaders, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis ruled the governor and attorney general denied the children in question “meaningful access to in-person education, programs, services and activities” because of the budget proviso.

Lewis’ order grants the defendants’ request for a preliminary injunction, with a full hearing on the matter pending.

A short item tacked on to the state budget passed earlier this year prohibits public school districts from using state funds to enforce mandatory masking. Charleston County School District is among the districts that have passed mandates anyway, drawing legal challenges and protests from anti-mask parents feeding off national political furor around masking.

“This case presents a legal question, not a political one,” Lewis wrote in her ruling. “And, the question is quite simple: whether the Court will allow Defendants to continue to discriminate against the minor plaintiffs here based on their disabilities. The answer is, of course, a resounding ‘No!'”

Lewis continued:

“It is noncontroversial that children need to go to school. And, they are entitled to any
reasonable accommodation that allows them to do so. No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities.”

Rights groups that were also part of the suit, including the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina (ACLU), cheered the decision.

“Today the law prevailed. I am thankful that the Court was able to cut through the political rhetoric and ensure that South Carolina parents no longer have to choose between their child’s health and education,” said Allen Chaney, ACLU’s legal advocacy director.

School districts across the South Carolina have struggled to adapt student experiences as COVID-19 infections surged among school-aged children who are too young to be vaccinated. Medical professionals say the state has likely crested the peak of the latest COVID-19 variant spike, but even among those old enough to be vaccinated, hospitalizations and deaths remain high as new infections wane.