State lawmaker, Palmetto pastor to challenge Manatee mask mandate

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini will join a Palmetto pastor in suing against what they call an “unconstitutional” mask mandate.

A state lawmaker has joined the cause against mandating masks in Manatee County.

A “freedom rally” is planned for 10 a.m. Monday at the Manatee County Courthouse, 1115 Manatee Ave. W., where the Rev. Joel Tillis of Suncoast Baptist Church in Palmetto will announce a lawsuit against the county’s mask mandate with Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican.

“The medical mask mandate is an overreach of the government without due consideration for the difficulty and abridgment of religious practice placed upon Manatee County houses of worship,” the press release says.

“This rally will promote the idea that our government must limit itself and that it has overstepped constitutional boundaries of freedom of religion, private property and personal liberty.”

The move comes just one week after Manatee County commissioners narrowly approved an emergency resolution requiring face coverings in indoor businesses where social distancing is not possible.

Wearing face masks or coverings is the official recommendation of the CDC and Florida Surgeon General. At the county commission meeting when the mask resolution was approved, Dr. Jennifer Bencie with the Manatee County Department of Health told commissioners that “the evidence is clear that masks help to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

As of Sunday morning, the county had a total of 8,733 cases and 186 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The lawsuit against Manatee County will not be the first for Sabatini. The state representative says he has filed 13 others against local governments that have mandated masks in Florida.

“Every county that passes one of these (mask mandates) should face a lawsuit,” he told the Herald-Tribune.

An economic recession is not the time to make arrests, issue citations or shut down businesses because people are not wearing masks, he said.

In Manatee County, violations of the mask resolution are not grounds for arrest, searches or seizures of property. They are punishable first by a written warning, followed by a noncriminal infraction of $50 for the second offense, $125 for the third, and $250 for every subsequent offense.

The resolution also includes exceptions, such as children under the age of 6 and those who cannot wear masks or face coverings because of medical or sensory complications.

The resolution is modeled after Leon County’s, which received a trial court opinion upholding it against one of Sabatini’s lawsuits.

Sabatini stressed that mask mandates are an “invasive precaution” based on “very little direct evidence” that they are effective. Counties that have imposed mask mandates are still facing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, he added.

“We just think (wearing masks) should be a voluntary choice,” he said.

Tillis said he believes the county commissioners made their decision in good faith. He also noted that he is not anti-mask, and that he and other protesters plan to wear them at Monday’s demonstration.

“We are not against the masks,” he said. “We are against a mandate that we feel is not thought out thoroughly.”

At issue, he says, is the way places of worship were “categorically lumped together” with businesses.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Tillis said, “Gov. DeSantis saw churches differently as being essential, so we’ve always operated that way. We’re not an ice cream parlor.”

Tillis also explained how human contact is essential to his ministry.

“How can we teach? How can we counsel? How can we take communion? How can we sing?” he asked. “It reaches right into the heart of what we do once a week on Sunday morning and alters that in a profound way.”

“If we don’t stand now or draw a line, California today will be Florida tomorrow,” he said, referring to the state’s restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. “That’s not just for Christians — that’s for any faith across the board.”

The county attorney’s office said Friday that it does not comment on possible or pending litigation.

But at previous commission meetings, county attorneys have warned about the possibility of a lawsuit and expressed confidence that Manatee’s mask mandate would hold up in court.

While Leon County’s trial court opinion does not apply to Manatee County, county attorney Bill Clague told the commissioners on July 22 that it is persuasive and relies on the “right law.”

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, the county discussed its “Mask Up Manatee” initiative focused on providing masks and educating the public about the benefits of wearing them. Officials also said masks would be distributed at the county’s public libraries during business hours.

The mask resolution is in effect for as long as the county remains under a state of emergency. It can be found online at

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