COLUMBIA, S.C. — Members of an American Legion Post in Greenwood are suing South Carolina because the state won't allow them to replace plaques on a war memorial that segregate the list of dead soldiers in two world wars to "white" and "colored."
The state law that moved the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome to a pole in front of the capitol in 2000 also prohibits local governments from altering any historical monuments without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The American Legion Post 20's monument is on city property.
The lawsuit says the General Assembly shouldn't have that power over local matters and the 15-year-old law is unconstitutional.
The fight has one of the senators who pushed for the protection of monuments to help get the Confederate flag off the dome and out of the House and Senate chambers regret that he fell victim to fears that Civil War monuments honoring Confederates were going to come under attack across the state.
"That part was a mistake," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia.
But plenty of people at the Statehouse don't think it was a mistake. A bill allowing changes to the Greenwood monument hasn't even received a committee hearing this year. Many of the lawmakers with the power to decide which bills get heard were in the Statehouse 15 years ago and think the debate was too divisive to take up in any form again.
But the courts might leave lawmakers no choice. Five men, several of them veterans who belong to the American Legion Post 20 that owns the monument in downtown Greenwood, have sued Attorney General Alan Wilson, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and House Speaker Jay Lucas.
The men want a court to find unconstitutional the 2000 law that removed the Confederate flag from atop the South Carolina Statehouse and moved it to a pole on the capitol's front lawn, built an African-American monument nearby and said — crucially — that all war memorials and other monuments in the state cannot be changed without a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.
South Carolina law no longer allows that sort of control of local issues, especially with property owned by a private group like the American Legion, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.
"That monument reflects poorly on them as members of Post 20," attorney Rauch Wise said. "It's telling citizens that the people in Columbia know best how to deal with your monuments and your community."
The idea of going ahead and changing the plaques has been discussed by supporters, including Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams who privately raised $20,000 and bought new plaques before realizing he might need the Legislature's permission. But for now, they are going to wait and see what the court says.
If a judge does find the 2000 law, called the Heritage Act, unconstitutional, the Legislature would still control what happened to the flag, just like Greenwood and the American Legion would get back control of their monument, Wise said.
The part of the law requiring the two-thirds compromise was talked about for years before 2000 and was offered as a compromise to people who didn't want to move the flag and worried all sorts of Civil War monuments were at risk.
Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, who signed the Heritage Act, said he wasn't thrilled with it, but needed it to pass the bill and end years of uncomfortable debate about South Carolina being the only state in the country to fly the Confederate flag atop its Statehouse.
He suggested that Greenwood simply go ahead and make the change.
"No one is going to challenge them if they go ahead and do it. What they are suggesting is a reasonable thing to do," said Hodges.
Former Sen. Glenn McConnell, the Republican and Civil War buff who most people credited as the architect of the compromise over the flag, declined to talk about it through a spokesman at his new job as president of the College of Charleston.
A spokesman for Wilson said it was inappropriate to talk about a pending case.
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