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SC Supreme Court to consider whether state’s Heritage Act is constitutional

Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 7:35 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on a 21-year-old law passed as part of a compromise to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome.

The Heritage Act, passed in 2000, forbids the removal of memorials for historic figures or events from public property without a two-thirds vote of the state legislature.

Five judges focused on multiple concerns about the bill, including whether there is a valid reason to consider the constitutionality of the bill now; if certain parts of the law could be kept while others are thrown out; if the two-thirds vote threshold that resulted in the compromise was too high.

“So if the legislature said 68% you would be standing here conceding that it was unconstitutional but because it was a little less than two-thirds somehow it passes constitutional muster,” Justice John Kittredge said to the attorney for one of the respondents in the case.

The Justices also questioned why the law only includes specific mentions of monuments relating to 10 wars and African American or Native American history.

“What justifies the exclusion of Jewish Americans and their monuments? What justifies the exclusion of Hispanic Americans and any monuments they may have?” asked Chief Justice Donald Beatty.

But the biggest question for opponents of the law is whether lawmakers should have the power over all monuments in the state or whether it should be left to local officials.

“The state has plenty of statues and buildings that they can control on their own property, but if it’s on the local level the local elected officials should make the decision,” Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall said.

Duvall is one of the three petitioners arguing against the act. Jennifer Pinckney, the wife of the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney, and former Sen. Kay Patterson are also petitioners in the case.

Republican leaders including Gov. Henry McMaster, Senate President Harvey Peeler, and House Speaker Jay Lucas are the respondents.

“The Governor maintains that the Heritage Act provides a good framework for dealing with questions around historical monuments,” Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, said. “It preserves monuments while allowing South Carolinians to voice their concerns through their elected representatives. That thoughtful, democratic process has proven to be important in the past and needs to be prioritized moving forward.”

There are currently a few communities and institutions calling for name changes to certain monuments and buildings.

Clemson University leaders want to remove Ben Tillman’s name from a campus building.

The City of Orangeburg wants to remove a Confederate statue from its courthouse grounds.

University of South Carolina board members want to rename a dorm named after a physician who experimented on black slaves without anesthesia.

Under the Heritage Act, none of those changes is possible without the approval of the legislature.

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