- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Following a long and at times testy debate over the Confederate legacy, the North Carolina House on Monday gave tentative approval to a controversial bill to protect historical monuments and memorials.

The House voted mostly along party lines, 70-37, in favor of the bill prohibiting the removal of “objects of remembrance” from public property. Three Democrats voted in favor of the bill and no Republicans voted against it, and it will go to the floor again Tuesday for further debate.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to place three amendments on the bill that would give local governments and the state historical commission more authority to remove or replace items falling under their jurisdiction. The bill’s language protects any object that “commemorates an event, person or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.” Removing such an object would require an act of the General Assembly to be approved by the governor.

Republicans said the intent of the bill’s original sponsors in the Senate was to protect public monuments from the decisions of local authorities who might be more susceptible to basing their actions on shifting public opinion. They also stressed that the Senate passed the bill months before the deadly attacks at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, ignited controversy over Confederate symbols across the South.

“The whole purpose of the bill, as I see it, is to keep the flames of passion from overriding common sense,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven.

After their amendments failed, Democrats began to debate the issue of the state’s unknown number of Confederate memorials, arguing that the divisiveness of the issue made it a bad time for the General Assembly to act.

Such memorials have already become the subjects of public outcry in North Carolina, where they have been vandalized and subject to calls for removal. Earlier this month, vandals spray painted the words “murderer” and “black lives matter” on the “Silent Sam” statue to Confederate veterans at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“We’re talking about statues that invoke passion, and not necessarily good passion; they get folks angry,” said Rep. Kelly Alexander, R-Mecklenburg. “Right now it’s the wrong legislation, it’s gonna send the wrong message.”

The hourlong debate at first moved slowly, with Democrats gingerly addressing their concerns over Confederate symbols and few Republicans standing to offer rebuttals.

But comments by Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, that Confederate veterans deserved the same recognition as veterans of the World Wars prompted a testy exchange between Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, and Republican leaders.

“They were on the wrong side of history, they fought for the wrong side, they were traitors to this country and they don’t deserve the same respect,” Brockman said.

House Majority Whip John Bell objected, calling Brockman’s comments “disrespectful.” Speaker Tim Moore ordered Brockman to tailor his comments around the bill, not around Confederate monuments.

If the bill passes a final vote in the House without amendments, it will go to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk for his signature.

McCrory’s press office declined to comment Monday. The governor is in Colorado for a meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association.

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