On Tuesday, the Arizona state Supreme Court ruled that a ban on mask mandates in school districts across the state was unconstitutional. For the time being, a stay on the ban will remain in place, meaning that schools can continue enforcing mask mandates to protect children against the spread of coronavirus.
The court deemed the ban unconstitutional because it was included as part of a series of budget bills. The Arizona constitution bars policies unrelated to such bills from being included in the legislation.
The court’s ruling, which was unanimous, came just two hours after deliberations between the two sides wrapped up on Tuesday. But the final opinion has not yet been issued; in the court’s brief order, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel said the opinion would come “in due course.”
The court will next determine whether the ban should be stricken entirely, considering the unconstitutional way the ban was passed. During arguments, justices of the court asked both sides what kind of remedy should be enforced if they ruled the ban unconstitutional. Lawyers for the state, who supported the ban on mask mandates, said that the ruling should simply acknowledge that the bill was passed in error, but allow the ban to remain in place. Plaintiffs who sued against the ban, including education and child advocate groups, want the ban tossed entirely.
The ruling is a blow to Gov. Doug Ducey (R), a proponent of the ban who appointed five of the seven justices currently sitting on the bench.
“We are extremely disappointed in the ruling… We respect the role of the judiciary, but the court should give the same respect to the separate authority of the Legislature,” a spokesperson for Ducey said.
Phoenix Union High School District, one of over two dozen school districts to issue a mask mandate in spite of the state’s ban, praised the ruling.
“Phoenix Union is grateful for the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling this afternoon,” the district wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “Arizona’s classrooms are now safer places for students and educators.”
For now, the ruling allows 29 Arizona districts that issued mask mandates before the ban was put in place to continue enforcing their rules. Polling from September shows a majority of residents in the state believe that districts should have the ability to enforce mask mandates.
According to that poll, 59 percent of Arizonans opposed the state ban on mask mandates in schools, while only 37.5 percent said they were in favor of it. Fifty-seven percent felt that masks should be required in schools, the poll found.
Evidence has shown that mask mandates work to prevent the spread of coronavirus — including a study that was based in Arizona. According to that study’s findings, schools without mask mandates in place were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak than schools that had mask requirements in place.
Arizona is still considered a coronavirus hotspot in the U.S. The state currently ranks ninth-highest in terms of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. This rate is increasing, up 50 percent from two weeks ago — even though the country as a whole has seen its overall case rate decline by 8 percent during that same period.