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SC Senate votes to remove flag; bill goes to House

tdominick@thestate.com

The South Carolina Senate gave final approval to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds by a 36-3 vote and sent the bill to the House.

Some state House members, meanwhile, were forming plans to fly other historic, and potentially controversial, flags in its place.

Critics contend flying another flag next to the Confederate soldiers’ memorial along Gervais Street would sanction the reasons for the Civil War, which included maintaining slavery.

Some lawmakers, however, consider the Confederate battle flag a source of Southern heritage and want to preserve it – even if they have agreed to remove the flag from the State House grounds.

State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said he plans to propose an amendment that would have the commission that oversees the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum present a proposal to the General Assembly for flying the flag and creating a wall with the names of fallen Confederate soldiers.

“It’s important that we lay out in this process to honorably … remember those folks who died,” Quinn said.

In the Senate on Monday, emotional speeches about a slain colleague punctuated the historic vote.

State senators said that the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney – and his Charleston church’s reaction to a shooting that took his and eight other lives – inspired them to vote 37-3 in support of lowering the Confederate flag.

"I regret that Clem is not here,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, referring affectionately to Pinckney by his nickname. “I did not express gratitude to him while he was still on this Earth. Because the reaction that those members of the church had is a reflection of him as their pastor, as their shepherd. ... I regret that I don't have an opportunity to thank him for that.”

The Senate vote Tuesday gives final approval to the bill that proposes removing the flag, its pole and the surrounding fence. The flag would go to the Confederate Relic Room. The final vote required a two-thirds majority vote for passage, a rule set in the 2000 law that moved the Civil War icon off the Capitol dome.

The bill now heads to the House for debate as early as Wednesday.

The House, which has 124 members, is where the proposal could run into trouble.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said lawmakers have several proposals to replace the flag with different banners, but he did not know whether any of them had enough backing enough to pass.

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said he has a proposal to replace the battle flag with another one, leaving the flagpole standing on the State House grounds near the Confederate Soldier Monument.

One flag lawmakers are discussing as a replacement is a state Civil War-era infantry flag, said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a major in the S.C. Army National Guard.

But Smith, like many Democrats, said he does not support replacing the Confederate battle flag with another banner.

Confederate flags flown during the Civil War were furled as part of the terms of joining the nation, Smith said, adding that soldiers are not honored when the flags they fought under are subjected to misuse and political abuse. Accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof was pictured with the Confederate battle flag in photos that first surfaced on the Internet.

The proposals circulating in the House would “taint a regimental flag that probably has a great history,” Smith said.

The Senate bill passed Monday does not include flying another flag. Senators rejected overwhelmingly a proposal Monday to fly the Stars and Bars, the national flag of the Confederacy, in place of the battle flag.

Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley, whose call to remove the flag two weeks ago started the debate, urged the House on Monday to “follow the Senate’s lead” in moving swiftly to adopt the Senate proposal.

The governor wants to see just two flags flying on the State House grounds – the American and South Carolina flags, said Haley press secretary Chaney Adams, who called the Capitol grounds a “place of unity for everyone in our state.”

The church shooting in Charleston has stunned the nation and led to calls for removing the Confederate flag seen by some as a symbol of racial oppression. The killings are called a hate crime by authorities. Roof, a 21-year-old Columbia-area man, was known by friends for spouting racist remarks.

The Senate’s vote gave some relief to senators grieving over losing a colleague, Pinckney, a 41-year-old father of two who was Emanuel AME’s pastor.

“Let today be the beginning of a story about a new South Carolina,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, encouraging lawmakers to vote for the bill. “It’s a story that starts after a very bitter and somewhat toxic legislative session, a story about how this General Assembly came together in the wake of unspeakable horrors to work to unite the people of South Carolina, a story of how we helped remove a symbol that helped heal a nation and a state in their mourning.”

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he would not vote to remove the Confederate flag. He was joined by Sens. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, in opposing the bill.

“It's been suggested that the flag be removed from the State House grounds and placed in a museum to give it proper honor,” Peeler said. “The greatest museum in the state of South Carolina is right here” on the State House grounds.

Peeler said removing the flag from the grounds would be like removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one – an action that would not change that person’s obituary.

“Moving the flag won’t change history,” he said. “Do what you think you feel we must for the healing of this state. Do what you think we must do, but you will not accomplish it with an affirmative vote by me lest we forget our ancestors.”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, thanked Senate Republicans for “having the courage” for supporting and speaking out for the flag's removal. “This is our moment to live our creed,” Kimpson said.

Before the vote, senators offered three amendments that all failed. In addition to flying the Stars and Bars flag, Bright proposed asking voters to cast ballots on whether the flag should remain at the State House or come down. The vote would have been nonbinding. A proposal by Verdin to take the Confederate flag down, but allow it to fly from dawn until dusk on Confederate Memorial Day, failed 22-17.

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed.

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