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Capitol Insider: Court Limits Implementation Of Law Limiting Mask Mandates In Schools

Judge Natalie Mai
Oklahoma County District Court
Judge Natalie Mai

The law created by Senate Bill 658 has hit a temporary road block as Oklahoma County District Court judge Natalie Mai orders a temporary injunction against the provision that prohibited mask mandates in schools.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Shawn, the top story of the last week in Oklahoma involves Oklahoma's law that prohibits most mask mandates in public schools, Senate Bill 658. An Oklahoma County District Court judge granted a temporary injunction against enforcement of a portion of that law. What did the injunction do?

Shawn Ashley: In short, the injunction permits public schools boards of education to implement mask mandates for all students. Judge Natalie Mai was very specific that her ruling applied only to public schools and not technology center school districts, which are also prohibited from implementing mask mandates by that section of the law. That was because arguments in the plaintiff's briefs and in court Wednesday did not touch on that portion. Mai based her decision on the fact that a separate section of the bill that addresses the information school districts have to provide parents and guardians about vaccinations includes private schools in addition to public schools. But for the exclusion of private schools, Mai said Wednesday's hearing on the temporary injunction request would have lasted only a couple of minutes and she wouldn't have granted the plaintiffs request right.

Dick Pryor: Right. The judge's order also allowed other portions of the bill to stand but goes beyond the provisions of the law. Explain that.

Shawn Ashley: Yeah. In addition to the technology center districts mask mandate prohibition remaining in effect, Judge Mai specifically noted other provisions of the law will remain in effect. Those addressed the information school districts have to provide parents and guardians about vaccinations, Section One of the bill, and prohibitions that educational institutions on vaccine mandates and passports and mask mandates that distinguish between those who are vaccinated and those who are not, Section Two of the bill. Responding to a question about her order from Assistant Solicitor General Brian Cleveland, Mai said school districts could not distinguish between those who are vaccinated and those who are not if they implement mask mandates, which is part of the bill. And she went a step further to say that any mask mandate must include personal and medical exemptions, which are not part of the bill.

Dick Pryor: Governor Stitt and one of the bill's authors, Norman State Senator Rob Standridge, saw the inclusion of exemptions to mask mandates in the ruling as a victory, even as the judge issued an injunction against the prohibition of public schools implementing mask mandates. How do they see that?

Shawn Ashley: Well, since (Oklahoma City Public Schools) Superintendent Sean McDaniel implemented his district's mask mandate back in August, Governor Stitt has consistently praised those mandates that have included the exemptions because he says they support parental choice. In fact, on Wednesday, he said, “I have been clear from the beginning that parents should have the right to make decisions about the health and education of their children.” On the other side of that coin, he has been critical of mandates like that at Hulbert Public Schools, which have very limited exemptions. He and Attorney General John O'Connor were very critical of the Hulbert Public Schools Board of Education decision to mandate masks in violation of the law by doing it through the school board and because it did not have those broad exemptions.

Dick Pryor: In a week when the state of Texas essentially banned abortion, a group of organizations has filed a lawsuit challenging five anti-abortion laws in Oklahoma. Who are the plaintiffs and what are they challenging in the laws?

Shawn Ashley: The Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York based abortion rights organization, is leading the challenge that also includes Oklahoma's Planned Parenthood chapters and the group Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice. Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that if these laws were allowed to take effect, they would end abortion access in Oklahoma, forcing patients to travel great distances across state lines to get essential health care. Now, keep in mind, this group has filed more than a dozen challenges against anti-abortion legislation in Oklahoma over the past several years and they have been successful in a number of those cases.

Dick Pryor: In about half a minute, are there any indications Oklahoma's legislature may follow the lead of Texas in further restricting or eliminating abortion?

Shawn Ashley: While no lawmaker has specifically announced their intention to file similar legislation, we've seen a number of anti-abortion measures filed virtually every legislative session. Keep in mind, this lawsuit targets five anti-abortion measures that were passed and signed during the 2021 legislative session alone.

Dick Pryor: That will certainly bear watching next year. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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