Court rulings in Shelby and Knox counties against governor’s mask opt-out order appealed by Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee visits with a student at Hanley Elementary, a charter school in Memphis, in the spring of 2021. (Courtesy of State Of Tennessee)

Tennessee is challenging the rulings of two out of three federal judges who blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that lets parents opt out of school mask mandates.

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III filed appeals Monday in district courts in Memphis and Knoxville. 

Those judges had sided with some parents who said the governor’s order violates federal law by creating unsafe learning environments for students with disabilities who are more at risk of severe illness from COVID.

But Slatery said the rulings “have impeded the governor’s executive authority during an emergency to direct the state’s public health response.”

With the appeals, Lee is digging in on his position that parents are the best deciders on whether to send their child to school in a mask, even as judges are siding with Tennessee school districts seeking to require them.

His press secretary, Casey Black, declined to comment.

In a statement, Slatery said he is asking the judges to immediately suspend their orders that have allowed districts in Shelby and Knox counties to better enforce universal masking requirements.

Earlier this month in Memphis, Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a temporary injunction in response to a class-action lawsuit challenging Lee’s order in seven school districts in Shelby County. 

Then, on Friday in Knoxville, Judge J. Ronnie Greer issued a similar ruling affecting families in Knox County Schools.

Both of their orders remain in place.

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Another federal judge, in Nashville, also ruled against the governor’s order last Friday in a separate case involving students and parents in Williamson County, south of Nashville. But Slatery did not appeal that ruling, which involved a temporary restraining order.

The court decisions have put the governor on the defensive over his Aug. 16 executive order, which Lee issued as several Republican leaders were seeking a special legislative session to outlaw school mask mandates.

Tennessee also is one of at least six states under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over whether efforts to restrict school mask requirements constitutes a civil rights violation for students with disabilities.

On Friday, Lee said he was undecided whether he’ll renew his order, which is set to expire on Oct. 5. 

“We’ll make that decision until we get closer to the (date),” Lee told reporters. “We made a decision to allow schools to mandate masks and have mask requirements — and to give parents the ability to opt out of that. We think that’s the right path forward.”

That same day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new studies showing that enforcement of school mask mandates helps reduce the spread of COVID.

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