Williamson County Schools (WCS) will continue their mask mandate, although a judge opined that they lacked authority to do so. Since Williamson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Binkley dismissed the case for lack of standing, he didn’t order the Williamson County Board of Education (WCBOE) to stop enforcing their mask mandate. However, he did specify in an alternative ruling that WCBOE lacked the legal authority to continue enforcing their mask mandate.
The Court is not convinced, as a matter of law, that WCBOE acted within its statutory authority at the time it promulgated its face-covering requirements. Further, the policy decisions promulgated by Mayor [Rogers] Anderson and Governor [Bill] Lee in February 2021 and April 2021 are inconsistent with WCBOE’s continued enforcement of face-covering requirements. With respect to WCBOE’s authority to issue a face-covering requirement, [their] Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment is alternatively DENIED. The Court cannot find, as a matter of law, Defendants have acted within the authority given to them by the legislature when enacting face-covering requirements.
It isn’t normal practice for judges to include an alternative ruling based on hypothetical facts, especially within a ruling denying that a plaintiff has standing.
In response to Binkley’s statements within the ruling, WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong issued an email to clarify that Binkley dismissed the case. Therefore, WCBOE could technically continue to enforce the mask mandate.
“Here are the facts: A Williamson County judge dismissed all claims against the Williamson County Board of Education related to wearing masks in Williamson County Schools,” wrote Birdsong. “Because of the ruling, the mask mandate remains in effect. Students and staff are expected to continue wearing masks indoors.”
Constitutional lawyer Braden Boucek explained to The Tennessee Star that even though the plaintiffs lost, the judge’s ruling put the board on notice that, in the eyes of the law, there is reason to believe the mandate is unlawful.
“The judge has not ordered [the board] to stop enforcing the mask mandate. It does not mean that the judge hasn’t said the mask mandate is illegal. Just because [the board] can enforce the mandate doesn’t mean that [it] hasn’t been put on notice,” explained Boucek. “Being put on notice affects issues regarding immunity. Ordinarily, governmental entities enjoy some measure of immunity. When they have knowledge that something is illegal, that can affect their ability to rely on governmental immunity.”
Boucek added that if he were in the shoes of the legal team for the school system at this point, he would advise them to reconsider continuance of the mask mandate.
“I would be very strongly considering whether or not we want to persist with the mask mandate in light of the ruling having placed us on notice that the mask mandate could be illegal,” stated Boucek.
According to Boucek, the alternative ruling could allow for two potential outcomes: either another parent could bring a lawsuit and cite the judge’s prior ruling, which the judge may or may not be bound to respect, or the plaintiffs can appeal to prove their standing.
Tennessee Stands, a nonprofit social advocacy organization, was one of the plaintiffs in the case. Tennessee Stands Founder Gary Humble told The Star that the WCBOE decision to continue the mask mandate despite the judge’s ruling was “asinine.”
“This is precisely what you call tyranny: when people have an elected office and they willfully and knowingly execute an authority they don’t have and hold it over the people’s heads,” asserted Humble.
Humble cited the Robertson County School Board’s decision Monday night to cease their mask mandate due to the judge’s ruling. Humble said that their decision was an exemplar for all other school boards.
Larry Crain, the general counsel for Tennessee Stands, told The Star that the board’s actions were a “flagrant disregard” for the court’s finding.
“I think it shows a callous and deliberate disregard for the civil rights of students that are entrusted to their care,” said Crain.
Crain shared that Tennessee Stands expects to take action based on the alternative ruling soon.
– – –