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Across the country, state and local directives imposing face mask requirements have been met with repeated court challenges.
An emergency executive order Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued that calls for people to wear face masks in indoor public places to help limit the spread of the coronavirus is facing a new legal challenge from a group of residents, a business and a church.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed late Thursday afternoon in a state district court in Ramsey County, are represented by the Upper Midwest Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that takes up litigation it describes as “pro-freedom” and geared towards checking government power.
Similar suits over mask requirements have been filed previously in a number of other states during the coronavirus pandemic. Walz’ order has already been targeted by at least two other lawsuits, one filed by voters and a group known as the Minnesota Voters Alliance, and another backed by several churches.
Many public health experts now point to masks as an effective and relatively simple way to help combat the virus. At least 34 states and the District of Columbia have some form of face mask mandate for people in public places, according to a database of state coronavirus policies researchers at Boston University and others have assembled.
But requirements for people to wear face coverings have become a flashpoint, with critics questioning the benefits of masks, and saying that the mandates infringe on their personal freedoms.
Walz, a Democrat, issued an executive order in late July that calls for people to wear masks when inside businesses and other indoor public settings. The new lawsuit claims that, in doing so, he exceeded his authority as governor and that the mask order violates rights to free speech and the exercise of religion that are enshrined under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in Minnesota state law.
One of the plaintiffs holds the religious belief that “mask-wearing is sinful because it forces her to associate with false beliefs and deeds of darkness,” according to the legal complaint. The suit also says that wearing masks would force those suing to signal agreement with the governor’s masking policy even though they disagree with it.
The lawsuit was lodged against Walz, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and a county attorney for Dakota County, Minnesota. A spokesperson for Ellison’s office didn’t immediately respond on Friday to a request for comment. But the attorney general has said previously he stands by the legality and constitutionality of the executive order.
Those suing want the court to prohibit state authorities from enforcing the mask order, or any other emergency executive orders related to the virus, issued under a state statute that allows the governor to declare peacetime emergencies. They’re also seeking to block Walz from issuing any new orders related to the virus under that statute.
Part of the argument the lawsuit makes is that a public health crisis is not among the situations under which the governor has the authority to invoke the emergency powers.
The suit also contends that even when a governor is permitted to exercise emergency authority, they cannot take action that overrides state laws. It points to a state law that forbids people from wearing masks in public places, which it says the mask order conflicts with.
Republicans lawmakers in Minnesota, where the GOP controls the state Senate, have sparred with Walz during the course of the pandemic over his use of emergency powers. And some state lawmakers have specifically voiced opposition to the mask mandate.
Some of the other states where lawsuits have been filed over mask requirements include Oregon and Washington, where the Freedom Foundation, a group that generally favors limited government, brought litigation. An Alabama state judge last week dismissed a case against a mask mandate there that Republican Gov. Kay Ivey put in place.
Local mask requirements have been challenged in places like Knox County, Tennessee, as well as Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a suit filed this week alleges, among other things, that masks create health risks by depriving people of oxygen.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.
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