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Multiple sides argue for, against school mask mandates at SC Supreme Court

The lawsuits could ultimately decide if governments and school boards can require face coverings.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday involving two cases dealing with masks mandates in Columbia schools, lawsuits that could ultimately decide if governments and school boards can require face coverings for kids.

The justices asked questions and heard arguments for one case involving the City of Columbia's mask mandate, while the other was a Richland Two parent who's challenging the proviso, or budget condition, that prevents mask mandates. It's unclear when the justices will rule in the cases. 

Almost two weeks ago, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson sued to stop the Columbia city ordinance passed earlier this month that requires masks in elementary and middle schools as well as daycares. Wilson said the city's rule violates state law, specifically the proviso passed in June. 

RELATED: US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights opens investigation in SC, four other states over masks in schools

That proviso says school districts cannot issue a mask mandate or enforce one either or risk losing state funding.  

But Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city had a "moral and ethical obligation" to pass the rule, since children under the age of 12 can't get vaccinated. An attorney for the city also said the South Carolina Supreme Court has held in the past that provisos that don't directly deal with raising and spending money can be removed by courts.   

RELATED: Richland Two asks SC Supreme Court to temporarily block mask mandate ban

RELATED: SC attorney general sues Columbia over school mask mandate

In the other case, a Richland School District Two parent, joined by the district, asked the State Supreme Court to block the proviso until this case is decided.

Meanwhile, the debate over masks has intensified, with some other jurisdictions choosing to ignore the proviso. Richland School District One passed a mandate, as did Charleston's school system and the Richland County Council. Newberry County Schools passed a 30 day mandate Monday night but quickly rescinded it. Monday night, the issue was tabled after the board heard from parents angry over masks in schools.  

RELATED: SC ban on school mask mandates has no clear penalty or way of enforcement, state leaders say

State lawmakers and government bodies have also been at odds over the issue. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has been a strong opponent of mask mandates in schools, and said again Tuesday that wearing a mask is a decision that should be left exclusively to parents. But South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said she disagrees and has asked the legislature to come back and repeal the mask mandate. And the U.S. Education Secretary sent a letter Spearman Monday saying they're investigating if South Carolina and four other states who ban mask rules are violating student's rights.