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The massacre of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church June 17 has renewed calls to remove a Confederate battle flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse.
The NAACP, which has long requested the flag’s removal from a monument to Confederate soldiers at the statehouse in Columbia, reiterated its call this week, joined by countless politicians and almost 400,000 petitioners. Hundreds marched June 21 in South Carolina cities to protest the flag remaining unfurled on government property.
One of the oddities is that while the U.S. and South Carolina flags are flying at half-staff, the Confederate flag remains at full-staff.
CNN reporter Jean Casarez explained the situation to viewers on June 21.
"By law, it must fly at a height of 30 feet," she said. "Any changes — taken down, or even at half-staff, if that can be done — must be passed by a supermajority of the General Assembly."
We’ve seen many versions of this claim, so we wanted to give it a closer look.
South Carolina’s Code of Laws allows the governor to order the lowering of the state and U.S. flags flying atop the capitol building to half-staff, which Gov. Nikki Haley has done. But according to her spokesperson, it’s the Legislature, not the governor, who has the legal authority to alter the Confederate flag. Title 1 Chapter 10 of state law spells it out:
"The flag authorized to be flown at a designated location on the grounds of the Capitol Complex is the South Carolina Infantry Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America. This flag must be flown on a flagpole located at a point on the south side of the Confederate Soldier Monument, centered on the monument, 10 feet from the base of the monument at a height of 30 feet."
"The provisions of this section may only be amended or repealed upon passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly."
The two-thirds vote applies to both permanent changes and temporary adjustments alike, according to the Democratic State Rep. James E. Smith, who doubts the law’s constitutionality and who’s been working on removing the flag since it was first moved to the grounds.
The Confederate flag has been displayed at its current location since 2000, when the state passed the Heritage Act, a compromise that removed the flag from its place of sovereignty atop the capitol but allowed it to remain on the grounds. (The same piece of legislation also requires a two-third's vote by the General Assembly to make changes to Civil Rights monuments.)
While the flag can be lowered physically, no one we spoke to could recall a time -- be it Memorial Day or 9/11 -- when it wasn’t flying at full-staff.
"It’s not a flag of sovereignty, it’s a veterans’ battle flag. … Should that flag be on the dome, which it should, it would be lowered, but it’s not," said Thomas Leland Summers, commander of the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who noted that the Confederate flag wasn’t lowered to honor Civil War anniversaries.
Smith, a Democratic state lawmaker, agreed, but also said: "That’s beside the point. It shouldn’t be flying anyway. If we were to lower it, it would give it the status of a sovereign flag, a status greater than it deserves. It should just be furled."
Republican State Rep. Norman "Doug" Brannon told MSNBC on June 19 that he plans to sponsor a bill to remove the flag in the next legislative session. Most likely, Brannon won’t be the only one, said Statehouse Report editor and publisher Andy Brack. (Smith says he wants to do better than supermajority, he’d like a unanimous vote.)
"These deaths — especially of one of their own (Democratic State Sen. Clementa Pinckney) — might be the best chance in a decade to get the flag out of a place of prominence," Brack said. "If the issue becomes a hot-button issue — so hot that legislators fear they'll lose their seats or face a challenger in the primaries for doing nothing — they could move promptly. They moved with the legislative equivalent of light speed after the death of Walter Scott in April and by June passed a bill to help pay for body cameras for police."
"The atmosphere is changing it appears," said Don Gordon, political science professor at Furman University in Greenville. "The attempts to remove the flag from visibility off Gervais Street in front of the Capital may gain traction. The pictures on the shooter's Last Rhodesian website and the clearly racist message some feel have moved the flag from a symbol of heritage to one of blatant hate, a shifting symbolism."
A CNN reporter said, "By law, (the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol) must fly at a height of 30 feet. Any changes -- taken down, or even at half-staff, if that can be done -- must be passed by a supermajority of the general assembly."
In 2000, South Carolina passed legislation that mandated the flag’s location, a height of 30 feet, and a supermajority vote to make any changes. The Confederate flag has never been removed or, to our knowledge, lowered since it was raised on the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument on the capitol grounds.
We rate this claim True.
CNN, June 21, 2015
Interview with James E. Smith, South Carolina state representative, June 21, 2015
Interview with Thomas Leland Summers, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, June 21, 2015
Email interview with Donald Gordon, professor of political science at Furman University, June 21, 2015
Email interview Andy Brack, editor and publisher of the Statehouse Report, June 21, 2015
South Carolina General Assembly, Code of Laws, Jan. 7, 2015
South Carolina General Assembly, Bill 4895, Dec. 9, 2009
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