Montana Supreme Court said masking in schools may serve legitimate, legal purpose

By: - August 3, 2022 6:54 pm

Face masks worn to prevent COVID (Photo by via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0)

In a 5-0 decision, the Montana Supreme Court said that courts in Gallatin and Missoula counties were correct in refusing to issue an injunction that would have prohibited public schools in the state from COVID-19 masking requirements during the pandemic.

The decision, issued Wednesday, was only limited to the issue of a temporary injunction, leaving courts in those two counties to fully decide whether masking mandates for students, staff and visitors violates the constitutional rights of parents.

Parents formed Stand Up Montana as a group to push back against masking mandates that were adopted around the state by public school boards. In their lawsuit, waged in several different counties, they claim that school districts had unlawfully interfered with their parenting rights and right to make medical decisions by requiring masking during the COVID pandemic.

They had sought temporary injunctions against the mandates, which courts in both counties rejected. The appeal to the state’s Supreme Court was limited to just the matter of whether the courts were correct in refusing to grant the injunction. While the state’s Supreme Court said the two separate district courts were correct, the justices noted that matter of whether the masking requirements are legal still remains to be settled.

However, the high court pointed out that even the conservative-leaning United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that public safety measures, like masking during COVID, are a compelling state interest during the time of a pandemic.

“Regarding the government’s interest here, there can be little doubt the school districts’ objective of containing the spread of COVID-19 among students and adults within the school system would be found to be a legitimate interest,” the court said. “Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that ‘stemming the spread of COVID-19 is unquestionably a compelling (governmental) interest.”

Part of Stand Up Montana’s argument was rooted in a parallel legal track as the current abortion debate, centering on the right of an individual – or in this case, parents – to determine what medical care was appropriate. However, the court rejected the argument.

“Implementing mandatory masking policies in settings with high COVID-19 levels is ‘no more a “medical treatment” for virulent disease than a motorcycle helmet … is a treatment for a head injury,’” the court said quoting from the Missoula court. “This comparison is especially apt in view of routine school policies requiring the use of protective equipment for activities that present a risk of harm, such as playing football. And, when an individual is no longer engaged in the activity, the protective gear is no longer required – as with the masking policies at issue here.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.