BOZEMAN — For the second time in three weeks, a state district judge has denied a request from a group of parents to block face-mask mandates issued by school districts for students – this time in Gallatin County.
The order from District Judge Rienne McElyea of Bozeman, issued Wednesday, said the lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban is likely to fail and rejected a request to block the mask mandates while the case is decided.
McElyea said decisions by the Bozeman, Big Sky and Monforton school districts to require students and staff to wear face-masks this fall to stop the spread of COVID-19 are within their authority – and do not appear to violate fundamental rights.
“Wearing masks creates minimal interference to children’s education, compared to fully remote learning or even a hybrid education model of learning,” she wrote.
McElyea’s ruling comes almost three weeks after a district judge in Missoula made a similar order, rejecting a request in a separate lawsuit from the group Standup Montana and a dozen parents of kids in Missoula County schools.
The same group and 13 Gallatin County parents also sued the Bozeman, Big Sky and Monforton school districts, making many of the same arguments – that requiring kids to wear face-masks is a violation of privacy rights, parental rights and the right to human dignity.
In the Missoula case, District Judge Jason Marks said schools “have a legitimate governmental interest in the safety of students, staff and visitors” and that the face-mask rule is reasonably related to maintaining that safety.
An attorney for the group, Quentin Rhoades of Missoula, said earlier this month his clients intend to appeal the Missoula ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
In the Gallatin County case, McElyea generally rejected the parents’ arguments as she denied their request for an injunction blocking the rules.
A face-mask is not a medical treatment or a medical device, and therefore the assertion of a right to privacy for making health-care or medical decisions is not valid, she said.
She also said requiring students to wear a face-mask is not an “affront to human dignity.”
And, finally, McElyea said the rules are “narrowly tailored” to achieve a legitimate state interest – stopping the spread of Covid-19 – and thus do not violate parents’ rights to guide their children’s education and welfare.
She noted that most of the rules in the Gallatin County schools have various exceptions, such as when someone cannot safely use a mask because of a “medical or developmental condition.”
The state constitution also gives school districts “wide latitude” to decide policies, including how to keep the school safe – and that students attending those schools have an obligation to follow those policies, McElyea said.
The Gallatin County schools’ decisions were based on recommendations from “numerous reputable sources,” the judge said, and the Monforton School changed to a mandatory mask rule in early September, after a voluntary rule failed to curb the spread of Covid-19 and led to a halt in in-person instruction.