Pandemic Debate: Civil Liberties vs. Individual Liberties

The American Civil Liberties Union stepped into the nation's masking debate in K-12 schools on the side of parents of students with disabilities. They won the first round in the U.S. Southern District Court of Iowa. Mask mandates are permitted again.

September 20, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Pandemic Protest

Ron Adar / Shutterstock

It's been a repeated theme in the courts throughout the pandemic: public health vs. individual rights and freedom. Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump called it a struggle "to balance the collective against the individual good" in his Sept. 7 analysis about vaccine mandates. [Two days later, President Biden announced a series of vaccine mandates that have aroused much opposition.]

Iowa is one of ten states that have enacted "measures that prohibit or severely restrict schools from requiring mask-wearing," reported Alison Durkee of Forbes on Aug. 31, illustrating a second pandemic theme – states preempting local authorities from enacting public health and safety measures.

"The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions," said Gov. Kim Reynolds upon signing House File 847 on May 19, as reported by Ian Richardson of the Des Moines Register. "I am proud to be a governor of a state that values personal responsibility and individual liberties."

On Sept. 3, parents of disabled students filed suit against Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo and several school districts to block enforcement of the law. As noted in a related post (Biden Administration Targets Five States that Ban School Mask Mandates, September 7, 2021),  students with disabilities are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19, particularly those younger than 12 years of age as they are ineligible to be vaccinated, which needed to be considered in ensuring their right to access in-person learning safely.

Ten days later, "U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt issued a temporary restraining order Monday stopping the enforcement of the mask mandate ban, siding with the parents of several students with disabilities," reported Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register on Sept. 13 (source article).

According to guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on August 5, "due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented the plaintiffs, praised the decision.

“We are grateful to the district court for blocking this dangerous law, which put vulnerable kids in harm's way and violated their civil rights in education," said Rita Bettis Austen, the ACLU of Iowa's legal director, in a statement.

Gov. Reynolds stated that an appeal would be forthcoming, adding that the state would "defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution."

Update on Related Florida Litigation

As posted late last month, parents of disabled students won the 'first round' in  Leon County Circuit Court against the state of Florida's ban on mask mandates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) immediately appealed the decision to the state's First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. On Sept. 10, the court ruled that the ban can remain in place while the case is litigated, giving DeSantis a temporary win in the battle.

DeSantis scored a second win in federal court on Sept. 16 when "U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore ruled [pdf] Thursday against Florida parents who alleged the state’s prohibition on school mask orders violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act," reports Durkee for Forbes.

Moore’s ruling comes after other judges in Tennessee and Iowa struck down those states’ restrictions on school mask mandates in similar lawsuits arguing the state measures violated the ADA.

Other lawsuits alleging statewide school mask mandate bans are also pending in TexasSouth Carolina and Utah.

    Monday, September 13, 2021 in Des Moines Register

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