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Federal appeals court upholds injunction against Iowa mask mandate ban

The Eighth Circuit held schools are allowed to require masks to protect children with disabilities.

(CN) — An appeals court on Tuesday affirmed a federal judge’s injunction against enforcement of an Iowa law banning mask mandates in public schools, but the divided panel said the injunction was overbroad and remanded the case with instructions that it be limited to schools with disabled students.

Iowa’s Republican-controlled Legislature last May enacted a law prohibiting schools from requiring anyone to wear masks on school grounds as protection against Covid-19.  

At the start of the new school year, with coronavirus cases on the rise again, parents of children with disabilities sued to prevent enforcement of the mask mandate ban, arguing it violated the Title II of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The suit named as defendants Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, and Iowa’s Department of Education Director Ann Lebo.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in the Southern District of Iowa ruled in October that Iowa’s law likely violated both federal laws and issued a preliminary injunction blocking its enforcement, prompting the state's appeal to the Eighth Circuit.

In affirming the trial court, a divided three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based appeals court said the parents are entitled to a preliminary injunction “because face mask requirements are reasonable accommodations required by federal disability law to protect the rights of plaintiffs’ children.”

But the court said Pratt’s injunction “sweeps more broadly than necessary to remedy plaintiffs’ injuries,” and it remanded the case to allow the trial court to narrow the injunction to cover the schools where the plaintiff parents’ children attend, and to allow other schools with disabled students to require masks as an accommodation required by federal disabilities laws.

The majority ruling was written by U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton, a George W. Bush appointee, and joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, a Barack Obama appointee. In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Ralph Erickson, a Donald Trump appointee, said the plaintiffs should first have exhausted their administrative remedies.

“Today’s decision is an important victory for the civil rights of children with disabilities in Iowa, who have a right to go to school with their peers,” Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa said in a statement Tuesday. The civil rights group represents the plaintiffs in the case.

“No parent should have to choose between their child’s health and safety and their education, but that is the terrible position that the state put our clients in,” Bettis Austen added. “It’s important to note that the court’s reasoning also means that even schools that are not named in the lawsuit should be requiring masks when needed to accommodate students with disabilities so they can go to school with their peers. This decision is a huge relief to families across our state.”

“The state will be challenging today’s Eighth Circuit decision,” a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General said in a statement Tuesday. “The decision doesn’t take effect immediately. The district court’s injunction of the Iowa statute remains in place statewide — and the state will still not be enforcing the statute — until the case returns to the district court. That will likely not happen for at least 21 days, which gives time for the State to seek rehearing of the appeal by the entire Eighth Circuit.”

The Eighth Circuit's majority opinion said the parents who sued met the legal standard for a preliminary injunction in that they established they are likely to succeed on the merits, they are likely to suffer irreparable harm absent preliminary relief, the “balance of equities” tip in their favor, and an injunction is in the public interest.

“Plaintiffs’ requested accommodation — that schools require some others wear masks — is reasonable,” Benton wrote for the court. “It does not constitute a ‘fundamental alteration’ of the nature of schools’ educational programs. Before [Iowa’s mask mandate ban] was enacted, the Iowa Department of Education maintained ‘guidance on face coverings . . . in line with CDC’ recommendations, and ‘defer[red] to local districts’ on how to conduct school activities.”

Benton wrote that Iowa’s governor and education director wrongly interpreted the Iowa law as a complete prohibition of mask mandates in Iowa schools. Instead, he noted, the statute provides an exception for compliance with other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Thus, while the state may enforce the mask-mandate ban against Iowa schools that have no students with disabilities without violating federal disability law, the court said, an injunction narrowed by the district court could prohibit the state from preventing other schools with disabled students from mandating masks as a reasonable accommodation of the disability laws.

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