Lawsuit filed against state of Arizona over law banning mask mandates in schools

A new lawsuit has been filed against the state of Arizona over its ban on mask mandates in schools.

A coalition of educators, parents and advocates for children is asking a judge to overturn several new Arizona laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to impose COVID-19 requirements, arguing the statutes violate constitutional rules and pointing out the state is seeing a growing number of virus cases among children.

Groups involved in the lawsuit include the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, and the Children's Action Alliance. Teachers and doctors are also included in the lawsuit.

RELATED: 150 Arizona doctors call for statewide school mask mandate

The lawsuit alleges that the legislation banning mask mandates unfairly targets public and charter schools and violates the Arizona constitution. At least 11 districts accounting for 140,000 students and more than 200 schools have defied the law by imposing their own mask rules.

The coalition also is seeking to overturn a law prohibiting colleges and universities from requiring vaccinations for students and making them reveal their vaccination status, as well as another statute that forbids communities from establishing vaccine passports for people to show they were vaccinated.

The lawsuit argues elements of the legislative proposals with limits on local government had violated constitutional rules requiring laws to focus on only one subject and have their contents reflected in the title of the bills.

"This is an action seeking to enjoin unconstitutional legislation that undermines our representative democracy, and to uphold the fundamental right of Arizona's public schoolchildren," the lawsuit reads.

Based on this legal contention, the coalition was asking the judge to undo two laws unrelated to COVID-19 prevention efforts.

One law prohibits the use of state money for teachings at schools that infer that one race is inherently racist, should be discriminated against or feel guilty because of their race. Another law establishes a legislative committee to review the findings of the state Senate review of the November 2020 election results in Maricopa County.

The legal challenge marks the second lawsuit filed over the law that bars public school districts from requiring students and employees to wear masks indoors.

David Lujan, CEO of the Children's Action Alliance, spoke out about the lawsuit.

"Republicans were all about local control, letting school districts make the decisions for their students, and that’s what this is about," Lujan said. "Giving local school districts the option or the ability to make the decisions on behalf of the students that they have." 

The office of Gov. Doug Ducey, who signed the measures into law, says the mask rules imposed by school districts will fail in court.

"We are confident the legislation we signed is completely constitutional," said Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

The lawsuit comes as a hearing is held on August 13 over a lawsuit filed by a Phoenix Union High School teacher that is suing the district over its mask mandate.

On Friday, a Maricopa County judge heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the mask requirements enacted by the Phoenix Union High School District, the first in Arizona to defy the law.

The district’s lawyer said Phoenix Union officials have a responsibility to protect people at schools from the virus and argued that the new law barring the district’s mask mandate doesn’t take effect until Sept. 29.

"Their intent was for schools not to be able to do this after June 30," said Alex Kolodin, the plaintiff's attorney.

An attorney for the biology teacher who filed the lawsuit said the district’s policy is unlawful and argued the law took effect after the Legislature approved it in late June.

Three state public universities and Arizona’s largest community college district announced this week they were again requiring masks to be worn indoors.

Arizona State University had a public dispute with Ducey in June prompted by the university’s decision to require unvaccinated students to be regularly tested for the virus and wear masks. The governor blocked the policy by an executive order applying to public colleges and universities that was later added into law in the state budget.

But unlike a budget provision banning K-12 schools from requiring masks to be worn, the budget does not ban universities from imposing universal mask mandates.

Parents, teachers sound off on mask mandate battle

As the debate surrounding mask mandates continue, parents say they are managing.

"They’re fine. They don’t like it. Nobody likes it. I don’t want to wear them. They don’t want to wear them, but they get it. We talk about how it keeps everybody safe," said Kelly Abram.

For teachers, it's not the letter of the law that's the priority, but the numbers. Arizona is seeing a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

"If we end up hitting a certain level of students that are testing positive, showing signs of this variant, we will have no choice but to step back into remote learning," said Joe Thomas with the Arizona Education Association. "Educators don’t want that, I don’t think parents want that."

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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