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Judge Rules in Coffee County Schools Mask Mandate Case

Judge Vanessa Jackson

Coffee County Central High School student Nico Sanfilippo and his mother Heather Murchison went to court on September 8. They filed for a preliminary injunction against the Director of Coffee County Schools Dr. Charles Lawson and the Coffee County Board of Education over the mask mandate at schools.

In part, Judge Vanessa Jackson’s recently ruled  that the constitutionality of Tenn. Code Ann. § 58-2-107 is not at issue in this case. In order for the Plaintiff to challenge the constitutionality of this statute, Tenn. Code Ann. 29-14-107(b) requires the attorney general to be served with a copy of the proceeding and he is entitled to be heard. The Attorney General was not served with a copy of the plaintiff’s complaint and was not afforded an opportunity to be heard.

The Court finds that the mask policy was properly adopted by the Coffee County School Board, pursuant to a lawful and constitutional delegation of authority by Governor Lee and Mayor Cordell. Therefore, the Court finds that the plaintiff has no likelihood of success on the merits. 

Coffee County Judge Vanessa Jackson has ruled the plaintiff has not carried the burden of proof on the remaining factors. Sanfilippo objection to wearing a mask was simply that it made it difficult to concentrate. He does not have a medical condition that would be exacerbated by wearing a mask, nor does he have a religious belief that would prevent him from wearing a mask. He continues to receive the same instruction as students who are staying at home and “distance” learning. He has continued to participate in football and his elective Spanish class. His grades have not suffered, and he continues to receive good grades. There is simply no proof that he will suffer irreparable harm from being required to wear a mask in order to participate in class at the Raider Academy. 

As to the factors of whether the issuance of the injunction will cause irreparable harm to others and whether the issuance of the injunction will serve the public interest, the Court can take judicial notice of the grave danger posed to the public by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the overwhelming advice of infectious disease experts, such as Dr. Fauci, that wearing a mask is the best defense to stop the spread of this disease. Dr. Lawson testified that it is in the best interest of students and parents for the schools to remain open for in-person learning for those who desire to attend. A significant outbreak of the COVID virus would lead to closing of the schools to the detriment and irreparable harm of those students and parents. 

The issuance of the requested preliminary injunction will in effect negate enforcement of the school board mask policy. In other words, issuance of a preliminary injunction would not apply to Sanfilippo solely, but would in effect allow all students to ignore the mask policy, and thus create a greater risk of the spread of the virus to other students, faculty and parents, and possible closing of schools to in-person learning. The issuance of an injunction enjoining the enforcement of the school board mask policy will not serve the greater good and the public interest. 

Based on the facts and applicable law, the Court denies the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction to enjoin Defendants’ enforcement of its face covering policy. 

In a Facebook post on Tuesday Murchison said, “Our liar mayor! Said in two interviews that he did not have the legal authority to mandate masks, but he does have the power to pass it to someone else so they can mandate??” She also posted a letter that Mayor Cordell issued to the 3 school systems. In short, Cordell stated that by Gov. Lee passed authority on to him, but he would leave the decision up to the directors concerning policies of operation including mask wearing.

In a July 6 press release to On Target News, Mayor Cordell stated, “As everyone would agree, we are living in unprecedented times in the history of our nation. We all have our own ideas as to the best path to move forward.  The medical and scientific professionals have many differing opinions as to how to combat this virus.” He went onto say, “As Mayor of Coffee County I don’t feel I have the legal or constitutional authority to mandate the use of face masks upon our citizens.  I know some will disagree with this decision. The citizens of our great county are intelligent enough to make that decision for themselves.” Mayor Cordell added, “I’m very concerned about the safety of our citizens, especially our seniors and those with underlying health conditions, but our citizens have the right to make the decision to wear masks if they deem it necessary.”

The mayor suggest that we simply adhere to a good neighbor policy and wash our hands, social distance and he highly recommends we wear face masks in public.

On July 28 Cordell issued a statement concerning COVID-19 and the start of school.

He said, “In a few short days our children will be returning to school across the county. To keep our children in school, businesses open and keep our citizens at work, we strongly encourage everyone to follow the CDC’s guidelines and the Tennessee pledge. Data has shown that social distancing, regular handwashing and sanitizing surfaces help to prevent the spread of the virus.” Mayor Cordell strongly encourages everyone to wear face masks when out in public or groups of people.

August 4: Coffee County Mayor Cordell said in a news release that he was encouraging Coffee Countians to wear masks.

Cordell chose not to issue a mask mandate as he did not feel he had the “legal and constitutional authority to mandate the use of face masks upon our citizens.” He did advise citizens to use guidelines issued by the CDC.

Read Judge Jackson’s complete ruling: Judge Jackson Order

Lucky Knott

Lucky Knott

One of Southern Tennessee's most experienced and recognized news broadcasters and play-by-play sportscasters. Current news director for On Target News and manager of Rooster 101.5 FM. Knott can be heard on 93.9 The Duck, The Rooster 101.5 and Whiskey Country 105.1 and 95.9. Lucky has done play-by-play for over 3,445 sports events on Radio & TV. He also served 4 years as the Public Information Officer for the Coffee Co. Sheriff's Dept. and taught Radio/TV for 6 years at Grundy County High School.

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