Justices caution the school cannot “discriminate” against unvaccinated students by requiring only them to wear masks.
By Jon Styf Updated: August 17, 2021 – 10:12pm
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the University of South Carolina can have a universal mask mandate, but it cannot “discriminate” by requiring only unvaccinated students to wear masks.
After the university announced its indoor mask mandate earlier this year, Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote a letter to USC interim President Harris Pastides, advising the school that an amendment passed with the state budget prevented the school from requiring masks despite it not explicitly referencing higher education institutions.
Wilson’s letter led the university to reverse its mandate during the first week of August and a professor to challenge Wilson’s opinion in court while being represented by state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.
“Nothing in the proviso manifests the General Assembly’s intent to prohibit all mask mandates at public institutions of higher learning,” the ruling said. “Instead, the proviso clearly prevents state supported institutions of higher education from using funds from the 2021-2022 appropriations to fund efforts requiring only unvaccinated individuals to wear facemasks.”
Harpootlian had sent a letter to Wilson on Aug. 3, telling Wilson his interpretation of the proviso was incorrect.
“Your contrived construction appears designed to reach a result that furthers a political, not legal, objective,” Harpootlian’s letter said.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, agreed.
“To be clear, the law does prohibit making unvaccinated students wear masks as a way to push vaccines. That was the fear when (the) law was written and what it was designed to address. It clearly does not prohibit universal masks. But (the) legislature likely would have tackled that in [September],” Massey tweeted Aug. 4.
The Supreme Court agreed and said its interpretation was following the letter of the law, not politics.
“Contrary to the Attorney General’s position that this matter presents a political question, we hold this action involves solely a question of statutory interpretation,” the ruling said.
The university did not immediately announce whether it would reinstate its mask mandate.
Wilson sent a similar letter to the City of Columbia related to mask mandates at its schools on Aug. 10.