Williamson Co. judge dismisses mask mandate suit, but is ‘unconvinced’ schools can require masks

By: - May 11, 2021 4:12 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A Williamson County judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging mask mandates in public schools on narrow grounds, saying he remained “unconvinced” the county’s board of education has the authority to enact or enforce such rules. 

The lawsuit was brought by the conservative group, Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity — also known as Tennessee Stands — and two sets of parents who withdrew their children from Williamson County schools after a mask mandate was imposed. 

The lawsuit is one of at least eight filed in Tennessee state courts challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s emergency powers, including delegating mask-mandate authority to local officials, since the pandemic began, according to case information provided by a spokeswoman for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, III. 

Three of these cases are ongoing in state courts; three were dismissed or withdrawn, and two are currently in the appeals process.

Three additional lawsuits were also filed in federal court challenging the governor’s emergency powers’ authority. Two of those cases were dismissed and one was voluntarily withdrawn.

In the Williamson County case, Judge Michael Binkley ruled that the parents lacked standing to file suit because they didn’t first request an exemption from mask mandates for their children and none of the children were threatened with discipline before being voluntarily pulled from schools by their parents. 

The parents, “voluntarily withdrew their children from Williamson County Schools based upon their anticipation of some hypothetical discipline if their children failed to comply with the face-covering requirements. This is a self-inflicted, hypothetical injury which the court cannot order the defendants to correct,” the ruling said. 

Binkley also noted the case is moot by now. The lawsuit, in part, sought a court ruling that Gov. Bill Lee’s delegation of authority to local officials to impose mask mandates was unconstitutional. Binkley noted that argument was no longer relevant, since that authority was allowed to expire on Feb. 27.

But, Binkley also wrote in his April 30 decision that “the Court is particularly unconvinced the Williamson County Board of Education has continuing authority to enforce its face-covering requirements” and “continued enforcement of face-covering is not viable.”

Binkley made his ruling before trial, granting the Tennessee Attorney General and Williamson County School Board’s motion for summary judgement and dismissal of the case before it could go forward. 

Lee Ann Thompson, an attorney for Williamson County Schools, said Tuesday that the judge had made no definitive conclusions about the school board’s authority to require that students wear masks.

“He simply said that he was not persuaded, at the summary judgment stage, that the board had established its authority as a matter of law.,” Thompson said Tuesday. “This means that if he had not dismissed the case on other grounds, an evidentiary hearing would have been required to address that determination.”

Attorneys for Citizens for Limited Government did not respond to a request for comment or a question about whether they plan to appeal. 

Meanwhile other lawsuits over mask mandates and pandemic emergency power authority are ongoing in state courts across Tennessee. 

They include a challenge to Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson’s authority to enact mask mandates, also brought by Citizens for Limited Government. A ruling on a motion to dismiss the case is pending. 

A separate lawsuit brought by Williamson County resident Russell Newman challenging both mask mandates and the governor’s authority to delegate authority to enact them is also ongoing.

In Coffee County, a lawsuit in Chancery Court brought by a parent over school mask mandates is set for a hearing on May 28.

And a Soddy Daisy, Tenn. resident has filed a notice of appeal in a case in Hamilton County that was dismissed by the Chancery Court.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case brought by Perry Allen, owner of Roller Express, a roller skating business in Maryville, Tenn. The lawsuit, first file in Davison County Chancery Court, challenges the governor’s authority to issue a series of executive orders that forced Allen to close down his roller rink, which resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue, he claims in the lawsuit. A date for oral arguments in the case has not yet been set.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.