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Missouri Attorney General Files Suit Seeking To End Mask Mandates For Schools

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, seen in this photo from July 2021, announced a reverse class-action lawsuit against schools that have implemented mask mandates.
File photo / Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, shown in July, announced a lawsuit against schools that have implemented mask mandates.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has filed a reverse class-action lawsuit against school districts that have implemented mask mandates.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, is specifically against the Columbia Public School District but also against others that are “similarly situated.” It calls mask mandates for school districts unreasonable and arbitrary.

In a statement released along with the lawsuit, Schmitt said his office filed the suit because “we fundamentally don’t believe in forced masking, rather that parents and families should have the power to make decisions on masks, based on science and facts.”

Schmitt’s new lawsuit is his latest action against mask mandates in the state. The attorney general’s office has already sued to stop mandates in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County. In an emailed statement to St. Louis Public Radio, Chris Nuelle, press secretary for Schmitt, said they are “extremely confident in our lawsuit.”

However, Robert Gatter, professor of law at St. Louis University’s School of Law, said the litigation is unlikely to be successful. Because the lawsuit will be argued on an arbitrary basis, Gatter said the state has to prove that school districts did not even consider facts when implementing the mandate.

“The state has to do more than just accuse. But it has to show that there was, there is no rational basis for this kind of decision. Meanwhile, all the school district will have to do is establish that there is,” Gatter said.

For the school districts involved in the suit, Gatter said it will be a lot easier to prove that there was a need for them to implement a mandate.

“To defeat this lawsuit, it would be enough for a school district to point to the CDC recommendation that all K-12 students wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status due to the spread of the delta variant,” Gatter said.

George Sells, director of communications for St. Louis Public Schools, would not comment on the lawsuit itself but said, “We feel very comfortable that masks are key in keeping students, teachers and staff safe.” Other districts contacted declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Schmitt’s suit came one day after many schools in Missouri began their academic year, with school districts across the state choosing to require face masks and others encouraging using them.

The issue of masks and children has drawn greater attention, with children under 12 ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccines and federal approval for them to be vaccinated unlikely until the end of the year.

One thing the suit could accomplish, Gatter said, is to cause complications for schools that have already implemented mask mandates.

“It creates doubt and uncertainty, which then seems to kick it back to individual parents who are making decisions without the certainty of the law being settled,” Gatter said.

The issue has left parents across the country divided on whether the decision on wearing masks should be up to the individual or school districts.

In response to Schmitt’s lawsuit, Webster Groves parent Jennifer Finney on Facebook said she was concerned about the lawsuit.

“I am unhappy that he’s using state funds to fight against scientific recommendations,” Finney said. “I would not be comfortable sending my kids to school without a mask requirement.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahKKellogg

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.