(CN) – South Carolina’s Heritage Act, which forever freezes all monuments of the past, wrongly enshrines decades-old segregationist messages in public places such as courthouse grounds and town squares, five veterans claim in a lawsuit.
The veterans filed their circuit court complaint on May 19, after being rebuffed in their efforts to simply replace the bronze plaques on public war memorial in Greenwood, S.C. a community of about 23,200 located 40 miles west of Columbia.
The Greenwood memorial was erected in 1929 to honor 55 local residents who died in World War I, and was later updated to include the 142 local dead of World War II. The problem, from the plaintiff veteran’s perspective, is the plaques on the monument, which is owned by the local American Legion post, divide the deceased under the headings of “White” and “Colored.”
The veterans contend that it’s just not right to honor those who died for their country in such a segregationist fashion. But when they tried to have new plaques installed, they found state law standing in their way.
At issue is the Heritage Act, a law passed in 2000 to block the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the dome of the state House. While the flag was eventually moved from the Dome to a location on the Capital grounds, the intent of the law preserves and protects the flag in its new location.
But according to the plaintiffs, “The Heritage Act unconstitutionally compels plaintiffs, the City of Greenwood and the American Legion to be represented publicly and permanently by a segregationist message that is antithetical to their actual viewpoint and beliefs, and it effectively nullifies their speech advocating change.
“The Heritage Act is thus a law abridging the plaintiffs’ and others’ freedom of speech and their right to petition for redress of grievances, as well as violating other state constitutional rights,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs, many of whom are members of the American Legion post, note that subsequently added plaques, remembering those lost in the Korean War and later conflicts, list the names of the dead alphabetically without distinction of race or color.
“Plaintiffs believe the racially segregated plaques of the earlier wars are tragic reflections of former times and no longer legitimate, as show by abandonment of the practice on the plaques of more recent wars,” the complaint says.
The veterans, the city and the American Legion post all want to replace the old plaques, and mindful of the Confederate flag controversy, proposed removing them to a museum.
But when state Representative Michael Pitts sought a legal opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office, the plaintiffs learned that fulfilling their desire to desire to replace the plaques is a goal easier dreamt of than completed.
In a February 25, 2015, opinion written by South Carolina Solicitor General Robert Cook, that state maintained the Heritage Act applies statewide and its requirements must be followed in order to make the proposed changes to the Greenwood monument.
That means nothing can be done until the Heritage Act is amended to allow the replacement of the old plaques, and such an amendment, “]w]ould require a ‘two thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly.'”
“Failure to follow the Act’s requirements would set a statewide precedent,” Cook wrote.
The solicitor general went on to advise Rep. Pitts that “[e]nforcement of violations of the Heritage Act would have to be through the courts.
“A party with legal standing, such as the owner of the monument in question, would have to seek relief in the form of an injunction or a declaratory judgment action to enforce the provisions of the Heritage Act,” Cook wrote.
The plaintiffs contend the Heritage Act “does incalculable damage in a dynamic society.”
“No one would disagree that slavery and segregation have inflicted great injury on our State,” the complaint says. “If we are not permitted to cure the legacy of the past, we will continue to carry the scars into the future. The Heritage Act is the worst possible measure for our State if we hope to build a brighter future for all our people.”
The veterans are asking the court to declare the Act unconstitutional and to permanently enjoin the state from enforcing it.
They are represented by Clarence Rauch Wise of Greenwood and Armand Derfner of Derfner & Altman of Charleston.
Welborn Adams, the mayor of Greenwood, told Courthouse News that he believes the state’s position is out of line.
“It’s a huge overreach by the state legislature to tell a group of great Americans what they can or cannot do with a monument they paid for,” Adams said. “We have always been a property rights state, but somehow it seems that our elected state representatives have forgotten that.”
Adams said the replacement plaques are already in his office and he also confirmed that the old plaques are slated to be given to a museum.
“They do tell a story and inform people about our past and history,” he said. “Nobody question that. But this monument is right on Main Street and I believe the American Legion has a right to determine what message they want to communicate on a busy thoroughfare.”
Asked what he expects to happen now that the veterans have filed their lawsuit, Adams admitted “it’s hard to say.”
“Usually things work out the way they are supposed to, so I’m hopeful the veterans will get their way … but you never can tell.”
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