On May 15, N.C. State Senate Republicans took 46 minutes to advance a repeal legislation protecting the physical health and safety of their fellow North Carolinians and visitors to our state by making it illegal to wear a mask “for the purpose of ensuring the physical health and safety of the wearer or others.”

West Caudle

House Bill 237, known as “Unmasking Mobs & Criminals,” began its legislative journey in the spring of 2023. In the original text, the purpose of the legislation was to increase the penalty for committing crimes while wearing a mask. Twice the Bill in its original form passed committee votes in April and May of 2023. The final committee vote passed on May 14 of this year, leaving the Senate Judiciary Committee very differently than it entered.

At some point, four additional purposes made it into the legislation that passed on the Senate floor.

First, and most notably, was “an Act to repeal the physical health and safety of others exemption to certain laws prohibiting wearing masks.” Then the original intent of increasing punishments for crimes committed while wearing a mask. Additional aspects are aimed at restricting any governmental directives that affect places of worship and not other businesses or organizations (simply put, mask mandates for large gatherings), increasing penalties for impeding a road during a demonstration or obstructing emergency vehicles, and creating civil liability for a demonstration organizer in the event an emergency vehicle is obstructed (regardless of whether these acts were committed by actual members of the demonstration or bad faith actors).

In order to understand exactly how HB 237 unmasks “mobs and criminals,” it is important to be aware that North Carolina has long had laws on the books pertaining to masks and hoods being worn on public ways, in public buildings, in or on another’s premises, demonstrating with hoods or masks, and placing exhibits while wearing a hood or mask. Those can be found in NC General Statutes 14-12.7, 12.8, 12.9, 12.10, and 12.14. Exemptions to these laws are laid out in NCGS 14-12.11.

Yes, there are exemptions for workers, in-season costumes, Mardi Gras or masquerade balls, gas masks used in civil defense, and even organizations in any parade, ritual, initiation, or ceremony so long as they get permission from the municipality or county commissioners. One could only assume which hooded and masked organizations would need exempting.

What HB 237 does though is simply repeal the final exemption. That exemption being NCGS 14-12.11 (6) “Any person wearing a mask for the purpose of ensuring the physical health and safety of the wearer or others.”

In the 46 minutes the N.C. Senate considered this legislation, which has the most serious implications for the most vulnerable in our society, three Democratic senators offered amendments to the Bill. Sen. Sydney Batch, a breast cancer survivor who served her first term while undergoing treatments and during the COVID-19 pandemic, offered clarification of the physical health and safety exemption by describing the health safety reasoning for a person to wear a mask. Sen. Lisa Grafstein offered a simple wording change from “disguised so as to conceal” to “disguised for the sole purpose of concealing.” And Sen. Jay Chandhuri sought to exclude hate groups from mask exemptions.

All three amendments were killed by straight party-line votes.

The same can be said for HB 237 in the N.C. Senate. After 46 minutes, it was passed and sent to the N.C. House with a party line vote of 30 Republicans voting “Aye” and 15 Democrats “No.”

Who is to say how the use of discretion by law enforcement will work for those that mask during a bout with the flu, in an effort not to spread the virus, or for those dealing with the reality of life with a deadly cancer and treatments that wreck the immune system. The legal facts will be that off their personal property they will be breaking the law if HB 237 passes the House and the Supermajority Republicans hold in the N.C. General Assembly have their way.

West Caudle lives in Hamptonville.

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