Raleigh, N.C. — Counties, cities and universities would have to get permission from state lawmakers to remove or replace state-owned monuments or memorials under a bill expected on the House floor next week.
The measure passed the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
Senate Bill 22 would create a new classification of state-owned monuments called "objects of remembrance," defined as a "monument, memorial, plaque, statue, marker, or display of a permanent character that commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina's history."
The proposal would forbid the permanent removal of any such object on public property unless the legislature passes a law to that effect. Monuments could be relocated only for preservation work or to make way of construction, roads, parking or open space, and they must then be relocated to a "site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access" and must not be moved to a museum, cemetery or mausoleum.
For example, would ban University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leaders from removing the "Silent Sam" Confederate soldier statue from campus grounds, as some students have demanded.
Sponsor Sen. Daniel Soucek, R-Watauga, said the bill would set up a uniform process for the management of the state's historical artifacts.
"How do we respectfully preserve the history of our state without going up and down on public opinion on a specific issue?" Soucek said. "Being at a state level is a more appropriate way to deal with it than having knee-jerk reactions."
Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, took issue with Soucek's characterization of the current controversy over Confederate memorials as "knee-jerk," adding dryly, "It's been on my radar a long time."
"Can you help me to be satisfied that there are no memorials or works of art within the state that may be reprehensible or sometimes disrespectful to classes of people?" Lucas asked Soucek.
"What is reprehensible and disrespectful is sometimes a matter of personal opinion," Soucek responded.
"What always comes to mind anybody could be offended by anything," added Rep. Gary Pendleton, R-Wake.
"This bill has nothing to do with what's happened over the Confederate flag," committee Chairman Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, said, "but I think that’s a good reason why we need something like this to stave off the flames of passion. Because once an item is destroyed, an item is removed, a historical item, it’s gone."
Speciale said state lawmakers would be more deliberative than local officials about the issue.
"We’re supposed to be the ones not to get caught up in the fad of the moment," he said.
But Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said that's exactly why House leaders should not take up the bill right now.
"We're in a time when the flames of passion, as you've pointed out, are roaring, and I think, when you're in that moment, the right thing to do is to have effective civil dialogue about how our country and our state want to proceed," Meyer said.
Lucas urged the committee to look toward the future instead.
"We can't do a thing about the past. I don't think we need to dwell on it that much," he said with emotion. "We ought to be looking to be one North Carolina, and if what one does offends a large segment of the population, a distinct group of the population, one ought to look at that with a jaundiced eye."
But Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, compared efforts to remove Confederate monuments to George Orwell's novel 1984.
"History needs to be retained. You don’t know what you are without your history," Pittman argued. "We need to face it and, like it or not like it, it is what it is, and we shouldn’t be trying to change it. And I don’t think the government has the right to change what history is."
House leaders attempted to put the measure on the floor for a vote Wednesday afternoon, but after protests from Lucas and other Democrats, rescheduled it for next Tuesday.
The measure passed the Senate with little debate back in April. It could be on the governor's desk by the end of next week.