Sponsor Of Law Driving Florida's Mask Fight Says State Has Right To Act On Masks, Not School Boards
Gov. Ron DeSantis has based his effort to ban local school mask mandates on the Parents' Bill of Rights law. The law gives parents rights to direct their child's health care, unless there is a "compelling interest." Whose compelling interest?
The Florida state law at the heart of the court fight over mandatory masks in public schools is less than three months old. It is untested in court, and one of the lawmakers who sponsored the law in the state House says only the state government can countermand parents' decisions about the health care of their children.
The Parents' Bill of Rights was passed by lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in late June. Among its provisions is that parents have the “fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children.”
That phrase is what the governor and lawyers for the state have argued outlaws public school boards from requiring students wear masks in school.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper threw out the governor's prohibition of school masks in late August. In his decision, Cooper said the state was relying only on the first part of the law’s language regarding parents rights over their child’s health care, but ignoring that the law allows the government to make decisions if there is a compelling interest, and if the action is “narrowly tailored.”
Cooper wrote, “In plain English, this law says the government cannot interfere with parental rights regarding education and health care unless there is a reasonable basis to do so."
State Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville Beach, who co-sponsored the bill in the Florida House, told the Florida Roundup only the state government can show a compelling interest, not a school district or local government.
"There are some areas in which the school boards within their constitutional and legal authority can act, but in this instance it is the state Legislature that has the constitutional authority to act," he said. "That is what the governor is is enforcing and what the school boards are violating."
"I find it shocking that he thinks that somehow the Legislature is exclusive in this right," said Craig Whisenhunt, an attorney representing parents suing Gov. DeSantis over his mask mandate prohibition. "They made it very clear in the plain language. They chose to include all of the other political entities in government levels in Florida."
Thirteen school districts require students wear masks. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has followed through with an earlier threat to hold back some state funding from two districts — Broward and Alachua. The money is equal to the salaries of school board members.
This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a grant program for districts that are penalized for mask rules. It’s called Project SAFE. On Thursday, President Joe Biden said governors withholding funds from districts seeking to mandate masks are, in his words, “bullies.”
Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon expects to apply for the grant.
"We were concerned of how we would actually acquire the funding if it had to go through the state before it ended up going through the U.S. Department of Education," Simon said.
Cooper ruled this week his order overturning the governor's ban can remain in place as the state appeals the decision. However, on Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Cooper should not have removed an automatic stay that stopped enforcement of the ban on mask mandates.
This decision allows the state Board of Education to pursue financial penalties against other school districts with mask requirements.
The appeals court order cites several concerns with the lower court ruling such as "standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters." The appeals court order said, “these doubts significantly militate against vacating the automatic stay, the stay should have been left in place pending appellate review.”
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