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South Carolina Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Confederate Monument Protection Law

A Confederate flag flies at a confederate monument in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., July 4, 2015. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a state law prohibiting anyone from moving a Confederate monument or changing the historical name of a street or building without the Legislature’s approval.

However, the unanimous decision also struck down a requirement within South Carolina’s Heritage Act that two-thirds of the General Assembly must approve a move or name change. Yet the justices upheld a clause in the law that said if any part of it was ruled unconstitutional, the rest would stand. 

The justices also shot down an argument that the law broke “home rule” in South Carolina by illegally allowing the General Assembly to get involved in local affairs.

“They contend local governments are in a better position to act with regard to this subject because ‘they can be more responsive’ to the thoughts of the community. This may be true, but Home Rule is not about who holds the better wisdom,” Associate Justice John Cannon Few wrote in the 22-page ruling.

The law, which was passed in 2000 as a trade-off for moving the Confederate flag from atop the South Carolina Statehouse dome to the capitol lawn, kept colleges and local governments from tearing down statues honoring Civil War soldiers or segregationists amid the country’s racial reckoning of the past year.

“As individual citizens — even Justices — we might look back on these events and wish the negotiations had been handled differently. The reality, however, is the Heritage Act brought the Confederate flag down from atop the seat of South Carolina sovereignty,” Few wrote.

The law specifically protects monuments from ten wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War, as well as monuments honoring African Americans and Native Americans and “any historic figure or historic event.” 

Jennifer Pinckney was one of the people who sued lawmakers over the Heritage Act, arguing that it prevented her from making changes to a monument to her late husband, state Senator Clementa Pinckney, without lawmakers’ permission.

Clementa Pinckney was a pastor at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, where he was one of nine black church members killed in a racially-motivated shooting rampage.

Jennifer Pinckney’s lawyer, state Senator Gerald Malloy, celebrated the part of the ruling that struck down the provision requiring two-thirds of the General Assembly’s support to approve a move or name change.

“The voice of the majority can now be heard about which statues and names best reflect our values and heritage. The road to justice is a long one that takes constant care. Today’s decision gets us further on our journey,” he said.

South Carolina Senate President Harvey Peeler, who said last summer that “changing the name of a stack of bricks and mortar is at the bottom of my to-do list” issued a statement Wednesday noting that the protections over the state’s monuments and statues “were ruled constitutional and they will remain in place.” 

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