Shelby County files lawsuit against Gov. Bill Lee over opt-out order

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Shelby County has filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee over the recent executive order that allows parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.

The suit was filed late Thursday afternoon.

“It’s unfortunate that we are having to litigate this issue when ultimately we’re trying to do what’s best for our young people,” Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said.

According to the lawsuit children make up almost one-third of the total active cases in Shelby County, making it the highest of all age groups.

“So obviously we would put that in the lawsuit that the governor has indicated that this is an adult problem, an adult virus and it’s not. This virus affects individuals of all ages,” Turner said.

The lawsuit argues the governor’s executive order violates the 14th amendment by citing children not eligible to be vaccinated don’t have a way to protect themselves against COVID exposure without a mask.

“To protect some of our citizens from a virus that can kill everyone is not good enough. We need to be able to protect individuals of all ages here in this county,” Turner said.

The suit also alleges that both Lee and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey have stated that masks are “the best tool available to protect unvaccinated students from COVID-19” , but Lee’s executive order prevents the Shelby County Health Department from being able to enforce mask mandates.

“Other children who share hallways, classrooms, buses and school facilities with those opted-out students must consequently face a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the suit says.

Soon after Lee issued the order, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dr. Joris Ray announced that masks will still be required for all employees, students and visitors in SCS buildings.

Turner says it’s the right thing to do, and he hopes a court ultimately agrees.

“The school system is protecting itself because what happens when the school system follows an executive order which could be found unconstitutional, and a child dies,” Turner said.

The executive order has sparked backlash from across the state. A group of Tennessee healthcare professionals signed an open letter opposing the order. A group of pastors from the across the state condemned the order and said they will continue to demand that Lee reverse it.

Parents from school districts in Shelby County have also protested the order.

James Downing, President and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, wrote a letter urging Lee to rescind the order.

“Forgoing mask usage in schools increases the risk that children will catch or spread COVID-19,” he said in the letter. “I implore parents to make the right choice and protect their children by insisting they wear masks in the classroom.”

Shelby County is currently reporting 119,942 cases with 1,834 deaths. Tennessee is currently reporting more than 1 million cases with 10,731 deaths.

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