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NC House rejects Senate's proposed mask restriction bill

Students Amber Helton and Audrey Payne participate in a pro-Palestine protest in downtown Chapel Hill. Organizers of several recent protests have asked participants to wear face coverings.
Brianna Atkinson
/
WUNC
Students Amber Helton and Audrey Payne participate in a pro-Palestine protest in downtown Chapel Hill. Organizers of several recent protests have asked participants to wear face coverings.

The state House voted Wednesday to reject a Senate bill that could restrict the use of face masks in public.

The Senate wanted to eliminate a provision in state law that allows masks for public health reasons. Republicans say they want to crack down on protesters who break the law while wearing masks.

But the wording of the legislation prompted concerns it could ban all masks in public spaces. Republicans in the House say they want to clarify that before the bill becomes law.

"What we've seen with a lot of this civil unrest, wearing a mask — that needs to be punished, you shouldn't be able to conceal your identity to engage in criminal conduct," House Speaker Tim Moore said Wednesday. "The question is striking that balance to make sure that it doesn't go so far, that you aren't limiting the ability of someone who is not breaking the law, wearing a mask for their own health. So we believe there's some language that can be drafted ... that will make that clear."

Rep. Sarah Crawford, D-Wake, said she's gotten lots of calls from opponents of the bill.

"This bill as written infringes on our constitutional First Amendment rights and puts at risk the health and safety of our communities," she said, adding that she'd like to see the law explicitly allow people to wear face coverings for religious purposes.

The House and Senate will now negotiate a new version of the bill. The original House version of the bill, which passed the chamber a year ago, called for longer prison sentences for people who commit a crime while wearing a hood or mask to conceal their identity.

Moore declined to speculate on what the wording will be in the final bill. "There's nothing that's been pre-baked or predetermined on this," he said. "This is a genuine interest in having a conversation with the Senate to improve this bill."

The Senate version would repeal a law passed during the COVID-19 pandemic that allows masks in public for health and safety reasons. That exemption was added to a 1953 ban on face masks passed in response to Ku Klux Klan activity.

The 1953 law applies the ban to "any mask, hood or device whereby the person, face or voice is disguised so as to conceal the identity of the wearer." Exceptions include safety masks related to someone's occupation or trade, holiday costumes and gas masks for civil defense drills.

The Senate bill would also impose Class H felony penalties — up to two years in prison — on repeat offenders who block traffic as part of a protest. First-time offenses would come with a higher level of misdemeanor charge.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.