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NC Senate approves bill making it a crime to wear a mask in public

Credit: iStock

by Ahmed Jallow, NC Newsline
May 15, 2024

The North Carolina Senate approved an amended version of House Bill 237 on Wednesday evening that would prohibit the wearing of masks in public.

The controversial bill, which would also increase criminal penalties for those who commit crimes while wearing a mask in public, comes in the wake of protests that have erupted on college campuses across the country in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

If it becomes law, the bill will also create a new offense for blocking traffic, a tactic used in some recent protests. The votes were cast 30 to 15 along party lines and it now heads back to the house for concurrence.

Sen. Buck Newton (R-Greene, Wayne and Wilson), who sponsored the Senate “committee substitute” for the bill, said it aims to reinstate a law that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate rejected three amendments to the bill proposed by Wake County Democratic Senators Sydney Batch, Lisa Grafstein and Jay Chaudhuri.

Amendments offered by Batch and Grafstein would have reinstated a health reason exemption and allowed mask-wearing unless the wearer was using the mask for criminal purposes.

Batch said as someone who was immunocompromised during medical treatment, she opposes any provision that makes mask-wearing more difficult for people with health concerns. “We are now trying to turn back time and ignore science and allow individuals who want to protect themselves or to protect their loved ones from wearing a mask,” said Batch.

“We talk a lot about freedoms in this chamber, I hear it all the time. I should have the freedom, my children should have the freedom and my husband should have the freedom to wear a mask in order to protect and save my life without fear of being arrested and charged with a class one misdemeanor, which is exactly what this bill would do.”

“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what this bill does, and how the law operates and it’s no wonder that so many folks are scared,” said Newton, questioning the motivations of those opposed to the bill.

“I think some of us are wondering what the real motivations are of folks on the other side of the house, scaring the bejesus out of everybody and making them feel like if they have a need at times to wear masks because they’re immunocompromised somehow, they’re going to get arrested.”

Laws dating back to the 1950s that were enacted, at least in part, as responses to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, prohibit wearing a mask in public in North Carolina, with exceptions. Those exceptions were expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic to include people wearing masks for health reasons. Newton’s bill would remove that specific exception.

Newton said a Senate committee investigation found no documented arrests or prosecutions for wearing masks solely for health reasons under the previous law.

Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue of Wake County expressed concern that law enforcement could use the law as a pretext to pull over drivers. “If you got the mask on and it’s against the law to be wearing a mask, you’ve created probable cause for any police officer to stop you,” Blue said.

Advocates and organizations including Disability Rights NC, Emancipate NC, and the ACLU of North Carolina spoke out against the bill at a Tuesday committee hearing, criticizing both the mask ban and provisions that target protesters.

“This bill is part of a broader attack on democracy we are seeing at the state legislature, while lawmakers who support these attacks on the right to protest are also leading efforts to make it harder to vote and to participate in the legislative process,” said Elizabeth Barber, the policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

In a statement released Tuesday, the North Carolina NAACP decried the measure as “a dangerous bill that threatens the fundamental right to protest in North Carolina.”

“This legislation seeks to impose severe penalties on protesters, particularly targeting those who block traffic or wear masks,” the statement read. “By criminalizing these protest tactics, the bill aims to silence marginalized communities and stifle legitimate expressions of dissent.”

The bill now returns to the House for concurrence in Senate changes.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.