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VOL. 42 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 9, 2018

Bill to criminalize voting to remove monuments fails

By Sam Stockard

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One of several bills considered retribution against the city of Memphis for the removal of Confederate statues died in a House committee today amid questions about its constitutionality.

The House Criminal Justice Committee sent to “summer study” a piece of legislation enabling the state to charge local elected officials with a felony for “knowingly” casting votes in conflict with state law on historical monuments and sanctuary cities. The move effectively defeats the legislation for this session.

Two Democrats, Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis and Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville, both questioned the legislation’s constitutional standing, as did Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer of Sevierville.

“This is really constitutionally suspect,” said Jones, who previously called the measure “ridiculous” and mentioned she might seek a state attorney general’s opinion on the legislation.

Sponsored by Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, the bill would have allowed local leaders to be charged with a Class E felony for allegedly violating the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act or state sanctuary city laws.

Questioned by Parkinson on whether the bill is designed to retaliate against Memphis for the removal of a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue and two other Confederate monuments late last year, White would say only that it would affect any monuments across the state that fall under the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.

Parkinson said he could support the legislation but only if it were amended to include Tennessee legislators, allowing the state to charge them if they voted against federal law. He tried to attach that to the bill but was unable to because of a technicality.

In addition, Parkinson asked if White had a problem with any Confederate statues in Murfreesboro being threatened with removal.

White acknowledged the Confederate monument in Murfreesboro is not in danger of being removed.

“Whether it’s good history or bad history we have to learn from our history,” she argued.

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, pointed out the statue of Forrest honored a man who made millions of dollars in the slave-trading industry, including selling children to grown men to serve their needs.

“Is that the same history you’d like to preserve?” Parkinson asked.

White responded by pointing out the Forrest statue fell under the Heritage Protection Act and its removal would have required a two-thirds vote by the Tennessee Historical Commission. That body, though, did not allow the city of Memphis to remove the monument, leading to legal action last year.

Ultimately, the Memphis City Council sold Health Sciences Park and another city park property to a newly-formed non-profit group called Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each, which led to the immediate removal of the statues.

That move spurred a legal complaint by members of the Forrest family and Sons of Confederate Veterans in Davidson County Chancery Court. The matter is to be heard by the Tennessee Historical Commission.

A separate inquiry by the State Comptroller’s Office, requested by Republican House leaders, determined Memphis did not violate the open meetings act or its procedures other than failing to take a close look at Greenspace’s financial ability to handle the statues and property.

Some committee members wanted to keep the legislation moving forward. For instance, Rep. Micah Van Huss, an East Tennessee Republican, pointed out the Heritage Protection Action would also provide shelter for monuments at the State Capitol honoring African-Americans brought here as slaves, Holocaust victims, Sgt. Alvin C. York and Andrew Jackson, who owned slaves.

He also mentioned the state law would protect memorials to the Rev. Martin Luther King, even though he made a derogatory comment about members of the LGBT community.

“We have not a perfect past,” Van Huss said, noting the nation’s making is filled with sinful acts such as the institution of slavery. He urged the committee to continue discussing the measure to help ensure the nation does not commit the same evils.

Ultimately, the committee made a voice vote to send the measure to “summer study,” killing it for the year but allowing the sponsor to revive it next year.

“I think it’s very important we look at protecting our history and that we do not have sanctuary cities here in Tennessee,” White said afterward. She added the measure would not have been retroactive against Memphis.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s office previously said he and the City Council haven’t violated any state laws concerning the Heritage Protection Act or immigration and have no reason to weigh in on the bill.

White had also pointed out she wanted to stop actions local governments take to protect illegal immigrants and provide them sanctuary. She pointed toward legislation considered last year by the Metro Nashville City Council, which was dropped after state legislators wrote letters opposing it.

Other legislation dealing with historical monuments would allow the state to retroactively take historical property through eminent domain if local governments take action within the scope of the Heritage Protection Act. Yet another by White would prohibit public entities from selling, donating or transferring memorials “for the purpose of circumventing the requirement to obtain a waiver” because of an “adverse ruling” by the Tennessee Historical Commission. The measure would not be retroactive.

Two other bills would stop state funding for local governments that sell, remove, relocate or destroy a memorial for which a Historical Commission waiver was denied and disallow the future sale of property with historical monuments or memorials to a nonprofit organization.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News and Nashville Ledger. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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