Senate committee advances bill to give Virginia localities control over monuments

Senate committee advances bill to give Virginia localities control over monuments
Robert E. Lee Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond. (Source: NBC12)

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — A controversial bill that would grant local governments in Virginia the power to move Confederate monuments is moving forward.

Senate Bill 183, proposed by Senator Mamie E. Locke, advanced out of the Senate Local Government Committee on an 8-7 party line vote Monday.

If passed by the full General Assembly, the bill – publicly backed by Governor Ralph Northam – would authorize Virginia localities “to have control over monuments and remove the existing statewide prohibition against removing Confederate War memorials.”

Right now, Virginia state law bans cities and towns from removing any war memorials.

In the long-ongoing lawsuit over two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, a judge ruled last year that the statues were classified as war monuments under that state law from the 1950s, which prevents war memorials from being removed by any locality, and effectively blocked the city from removing the statues.

The law makes it "unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with" any war monuments; Charlottesville argued in court that state law applied only to war memorials built after the law was amended in 1998 (the statute was originally passed in 1904 and codified in the 1950s, after the statues were erected in the 1920s), but that argument did not hold up.

Separately, prosecutors for the city of Norfolk are arguing that the state law infringes on the city's right to free speech, as part of a lawsuit seeking to remove an 80-foot monument in downtown Norfolk.

The long-running debate over Confederate statues gained new momentum after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 descended into violence and a car attack left a woman dead.

In the aftermath of the violence, many places around the country quickly started taking monuments down, but not in Virginia.

Supporters of the legislation cited the deadly rally in their push for the bill over the past two years.

Lisa Draine had tears in her eyes at a committee hearing in 2019 as she spoke of her daughter, Sophie, who was severely injured when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into the Charlottesville crowd.

“I couldn’t imagine that a statue had brought this to our town,” Draine said. “My daughter could have been your daughter.”

Opponents of the bill have argued that it could allow discrimination.

“It’s painfully clear discrimination based on Confederate national origin is the basis of this bill,” said Ed Willis in 2019. Like many other opponents, Willis said his ancestors served in the Civil War.

Late last year, following long-standing discussions, Richmond City Council voted to ask the General Assembly to allow them to have control over the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Gov. Northam's endorsement of bills to grant that authority came soon afterward, along with support for a bill to authorize the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol to provide for removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

A nearly identical bill to give localities authority to remove war monuments in Virginia was killed in a House of Delegates subcommittee last year, while Republicans had control of the General Assembly. Following November's elections, in which Democrats took Virginia's statehouse, leaders of the Democratic Party pledged to make the bill a priority this year.

Here is the current text of § 15.2-1812 of the Code of Virginia:

A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials: Algonquin (1622), French and Indian (1754-1763), Revolutionary (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican (1846-1848), Confederate or Union monuments or memorials of the War Between the States (1861-1865), Spanish-American (1898), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1973), Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990-1991), Global War on Terrorism (2000- ), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001- ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003- ). If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same. For purposes of this section, "disturb or interfere with" includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.

Under Senate Bill 183, the text would read as follows:

A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials: Algonquin (1622), French and Indian (1754-1763), Revolutionary (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican (1846-1848), Confederate or Union monuments or memorials of the War Between the States (1861-1865), Spanish-American (1898), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1973), Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990-1991), Global War on Terrorism (2000- ), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001- ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003- ). A locality may remove, relocate, or alter any such monument or memorial, regardless of when erected.

No action has yet been taken on a House bill that proposes an identical measure to SB 183.

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