LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday said it wouldn't allow the state to enforce its ban on mask mandates by schools and other government bodies, while lawmakers clashed over efforts to prohibit businesses from requiring employees get the COVID-19 vaccine.
In a one-page order, justices denied the request by the state to stay the August decision blocking enforcement of Arkansas' mandate ban.
More than 100 school districts and charter schools have approved mask requirements since the ruling against the law. The requirements cover more than half the state's public school students.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the law but later said he regretted that decision, had separately asked the court to deny the request to stay the ruling.
“I am gratified with the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling allowing the decision of Judge Fox to stand," Hutchinson said in a statement. “Judge Fox determined the law was unconstitutional and allowed local school districts to make their own decisions on masks.”
Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was disappointed with the ruling.
“I will wholeheartedly defend Arkansas law as this appeal progresses," she said in a statement.
The ruling came the same day the majority-Republican Senate voted to send eight bills limiting or prohibiting employer vaccine mandates back to a committee following complaints that they were rushed through a day earlier without public comment.
“The general public had 30 minutes' notice, had no chance to read the bills and we think that’s OK?" Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang said.
The Legislature has been flooded with the anti-vaccine mandate bills, despite legislative leaders saying they want to keep their focus on redrawing congressional boundaries. Hutchinson has also said lawmakers should focus on redistricting.
The bills are primarily in response to President Joe Biden’s order that businesses with more than 100 employees must require their workers to get vaccinated or tested regularly. Some of Arkansas’ largest employers, including Walmart, and several hospitals in the state are requiring some or all employees to get vaccinated. Arkansas law bans vaccine mandates by state and local government entities.
“I have been immunized, that was my choice, but I have no problem protecting the citizens of Arkansas and what they believe,” Republican Sen. Blake Johnson, who introduced one of the bills allowing workers to opt out of vaccine requirements.
The bills proposed include one that would allow employees to be exempted from vaccine mandates if they have philosophical or religious objections, or have medical contraindications. Another bill would allow employees to be exempted from vaccine mandates if they’re tested weekly or can prove they have antibodies, even though health officials say antibody tests should not be used to assess immunity from COVID-19.
Opponents said the measures would prevent businesses from taking steps to protect their workers and customers. The state Chamber of Commerce has also warned it could force businesses to choose whether to break state law or to violate federal regulations and face costly fines.
“Nobody is forced to get the shot under even the executive orders," Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent, said. “It is required as a condition of employment just like many other things are required."
Lawmakers reconvened this week primarily to take up congressional redistricting, though the resolution the Legislature approved to return to the Capitol included the COVID-19 pandemic and federal relief funding for the pandemic as a possible topic.
Several of the measures call for using relief funds, which proponents say would make them eligible to be considered during the extended. But a consultant hired by the state said some of those proposals, including one calling for using the relief funds to reimburse lost wages to workers who refuse to get vaccinated, would not be allowed under the American Rescue Plan.
House and Senate leaders also said they were continuing to negotiate between competing redistricting maps. The House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees have indicated support two different proposals that would include splitting Pulaski County, the state's most populous county, between two congressional seats.
The county is currently located in the 2nd Congressional District. Republicans hold all four of the state's congressional seats.