OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – An Oklahoma County District Court judge ruled Wednesday to put the brakes on a controversial new state law that bans mask mandates in schools. Attorneys say today’s ruling allows school districts to basically go back to eight months ago and institute mask mandates as they see fit.
A group called “Moms for Masks” were at the Oklahoma County Courthouse early Wednesday morning before an initial hearing on a lawsuit filed by doctors from the Oklahoma State Medical Association against the Oklahoma State legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt. The suit claims that Senate Bill 658, the law banning mask mandates in schools, is unconstitutional.
Attorneys for the plaintiff asked Judge Natalie Mai, on Wednesday, to halt enforcement of the law until the lawsuit can be heard, saying the law increases danger to children and could halt in-person learning.
Attorneys for the state argue the law doesn’t prevent anyone from wearing a mask, it just prevents mandates.
Ultimately, Judge Mai said it’s not the court’s place to decide if a law is good or bad legislation, but since the current law allows for mask mandates in private school but not in public, a limited, temporary injunction would go into place next week. Experts say this would be opening the door for schools to put in place a mask mandate as long as parents have the ability to opt their children out.
“Why not take the common sense, logical, medically appropriate steps to try to put a blow in COVID, try to reduce the hospital overload. It makes too much sense,” said Chad Taylor, attorney for the State Medical Association.
“This is a first step, a preemptive step, into making a difference for the children,” said Melissa Bradshaw of Grandmas for Masks.
Supporters of the law differ on the outcome of the decision.
“We don’t believe that there is enough information out there that actually shows that masks work. If masks work and you mask, then what’s the problem if other people aren’t masked,” said Jenni White of Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment.
Surprisingly, Stitt came out with a statement saying, “This is a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law. I have been clear from the beginning that parents should have the right to make decisions about the health and education of their children.”
Stitt reportedly claims the ability for parent to still opt out is a temporary win.
But State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister issued the following statement:
“Today is a victory for families, the safeguarding of schoolchildren and their opportunity to learn in-person. The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibition on SB 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabilities and most vulnerable in our schools.”STATE SUPERINTENDENT JOY HOFMEISTER
Attorney General John O’Connor also weighed in, issuing the following statement:
“We applaud Judge Mai’s clear recognition that any school mask order must include generous opt-out provisions for Oklahoma parents based on any personal, religious, or medical reason. We continue to believe the choice to wear a mask or not is a decision that needs to be made by children and their parents. We appreciate Judge Mai stayed her very limited injunction until next week. While we disagree that any part of the law is unconstitutional, my office will take the time afforded to us to determine the best legal strategy moving forward.”ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN O’CONNOR
Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, responded the Mai’s ruling granting a temporary injunction against SB 658. The intent of the legislature, according to Roberts, was to create an opt-in masking policy for public schools. The bill was overwhelmingly passed this last session and signed into law.
According to news reports, Mai stated in her ruling that if SB 658 pertained to private and public schools equally, then “the hearing would’ve been two minutes long and the law would stand.” Instead, Mai granted the injunction and said that schools must allow opt-out exemptions until a higher court takes action or a permanent injunction is granted.
“Judge Mai’s temporary injunction clearly violates the legislative intent and showcases her incompetence to act as a county district judge,” Roberts said. “In the upcoming session, I will be looking at what avenues the Legislature can take in order to remove county district judges or give us the ability to file impeachment charges against these judges. It has been needed for quite some time now.”
Roberts went on to cite O.S. Title 21 Section 1280.1, which allows firearms and weapons on school property in certain cases. In particular, he quoted paragraph C, subsection 4, which states:
“A concealed or unconcealed weapon carried onto private school property or in any school bus or vehicle used by any private school for transportation of students or teachers by a person who is licensed pursuant to the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, provided a policy has been adopted by the governing entity of the private school that authorizes the possession of a weapon on private school property or in any school bus or vehicle used by a private school.”
Roberts continued, “If the state has the legal authority to allow private schools to determine their firearms policies, but not public schools, then the Legislature also has the authority to tell public schools that they cannot implement blanket mask policies. This is just another example of judicial overreach and legislating from the bench.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, released the following statement in response to Mai placing an injunction on SB 658.
“As districts across the state are showing, local school boards are better equipped to protect students than Governor Stitt and the Oklahoma Legislature. This injunction reinforces each district’s power to keep students and faculty safe.
School districts have the right to implement policies to protect children without fear of reprisal from Oklahoma Republicans.
Senate Bill 658 was unnecessary and has cost taxpayers through litigation expenses, but more importantly, it has caused our school districts to hesitate in the face of a deadly pandemic. I appreciate Judge Mai’s commonsense injunction.”HOUSE MINORITY LEADER EMILY VIRGIN
Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, released the following statement Wednesday after the District Court’s hearing on Senate Bill 658:
“While I am still reviewing what the judge had to say, I am encouraged by her statements that respect the legislature’s intent to entrust parents whether to mask or not to mask their child. Ultimately, we must uphold the right of Oklahoma parents to decide what is best for their own children.”SEN. ROB STANDRIDGE
Steven Crawford, MD, chairman for the Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families, issued the following statement in support of the ruling:
“Today’s ruling is a clear sign that protecting children during the pandemic should be the standard, not the exception. Parents who do not want to protect their children are free to opt out but they will clearly be in a minority and put others at risk including their children. We still emphasize that masking, even if vaccinated, helps protect those that cannot be vaccinated or are unable to mount an adequate protective response to the COVID vaccines.”STEVEN CRAWFORD, MD, OKLAHOMA ALLIANCE FOR HEALTHY FAMILIES CHAIRMAN
Liza Greve, Executive Director of Oklahomans for Health & Parental Rights, issued the following statement, saying the temporary injunction is a stalemate:
“We do not see a full out win for either side on today’s temporary injunction. We will call it a stalemate of sorts, because some could say it’s a loss because schools can now “require” masks. On the other hand, because the schools must allow exemptions, some view it as a win for parental rights.
We feel like the spirit of the law has always been about giving parents choice without having to opt out and we hope that that will ultimately prevail in this case. Parents know their children best and there is no more local control than that.”LIZA GREVE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF OKLAHOMANS FOR HEALTH & PARENTAL RIGHTS
The injunction is set to take effect Sept. 8. The State could appeal the injunction while they await the hearing on the actual lawsuit, which the judge said would be coming soon.