Arkansas court lifts judge’s ruling against mask mandate ban

Arkansas then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson appears at a press conference to announce a statewide mask mandate on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Little Rock, Ark. (Governor’s Office)

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday lifted a judge’s decision to strike down a ban on mask mandates by public schools and government entities. But attorneys disagreed over whether the ruling will allow the state to begin enforcing the law.

Justices vacated a Pulaski County judge’s ruling against the ban, which Arkansas’ Republican lawmakers and governor want to reinstate, but did not weigh in on the constitutionality of the 2021 law.

Arkansas’ new coronavirus cases are significantly lower than when the law was first blocked two years ago, and few if any school districts in the state are requiring students or teachers to wear a mask to prevent the virus’ spread.

Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised the ruling as a “promising first step in upholding the rule of law.”

“I promised that when I was elected, Arkansas would not have mask or COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and we would not shut down churches and schools because we believe in personal freedom and responsibility,” Sanders said in a statement. “In Arkansas, government will never loom larger than liberty in our lives.”

The decision doesn’t end the legal fight over the Arkansas law, and it remained unclear whether the ruling clears the way for the state to begin enforcing the ban.

Tom Mars, an attorney who represented parents challenging Arkansas’ law said an earlier ruling temporarily blocking the ban remained in effect.

“The preliminary injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Act 1002 on constitutional grounds remains in full force and effect and will not be revisited for quite some time,” Mars said in a statement.

An attorney for the Little Rock School District, which also challenged the ban, agreed with Mars and said the ruling doesn’t affect the earlier injunction.

“I’m expecting, based on the statements made by the various parties today, that there will be a lot of debate about what this means at the circuit court,” attorney Chris Heller said.

But Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, said that Thursday’s decision means no injunctions against the law remain once the Supreme Court’s ruling takes effect.

“I remain committed to defending the constitutionality of the ban on mask mandates,” Griffin said in a statement. “This is an important victory.”

Circuit Judge Tim Fox struck in 2021 down the mandate ban as unconstitutional on multiple grounds, including that it discriminates between children in public and private schools. Private schools were not barred from requiring masks under the law.

Justices on Thursday ruled that Fox didn’t have the authority to issue such a ruling since an appeal of his preliminary injunction was pending at the time before the Supreme Court. That appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court last year as moot.

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed the ban into law but later said he regretted that decision and has said he agreed with Fox’s initial ruling against the ban. Sanders last week said she was reversing the official position of the governor’s office on the ban, saying she believed the measure was constitutional.