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Alamance County can allow Confederate monument to stand, NC appeals court rules

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by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
March 19, 2024

Alamance County officials must leave a Confederate soldier monument standing in front of the county courthouse in Graham, three appellate court judges ruled today, because state law forbids its removal.

The NAACP, Engage Alamance and Down Home NC, along with several individual plaintiffs, had sued the Alamance County Commissioners, asserting the “maintenance and protection” of a “symbol of white supremacy” violated the state constitution. The plaintiffs had demanded that the monument be moved to a “historically appropriate location.”

Chief Judge Chris Dillon wrote the opinion in favor of Alamance County; fellow justices Donna Stroud and Valerie Zachary concurred. All three judges are Republican.

The plaintiffs took their case to the state appeals court after Alamance County Superior Court Judge Donald Bridges found in favor of the commissioners in 2022.

The appeals court cited the state’s “Monument Protection Law,” enacted in 2015, that forbids  “[a]n object of remembrance located on public property” to be permanently removed. It can relocated, temporarily or permanently, under narrow circumstances. The law goes on to define an “object of remembrance” as one that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.”

However, several North Carolina jurisdictions have circumvented that law and removed monuments, Newsline previously reported:

In 2017, protesters toppled a Confederate monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse after their efforts to have the statue legally removed were stymied by the GOP-dominated legislature. The protest was in part prompted by a neo-Nazi who plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Va.In 2018, protesters pulled down the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. Shortly thereafter, the State Historical Commission decided not to remove the three Confederate monuments on the State Capitol grounds. The commissioners said at the time that they felt constrained by a 2015 monuments law to keep the statues in place.In 2019, the City of Winston-Salem succeeded in legally removing a Confederate monument from the site of a former courthouse downtown after years of legal struggles.In June 2020, protesters tore down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot North Carolina Confederate monument at the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh, hanging one by its neck from a streetlight. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the remainder of the monument dismantled and removed for public safety, along with the Henry Lewis Wyatt and North Carolina Women of the Confederacy monuments, the two other Confederate statues on State Capitol property.

The 2020 nationwide protests erupted after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, killed George Floyd, a Black man. That year, local and state governments, as well as universities removed 168 Confederate symbols from the public eye, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center; 23 of those removals occurred in North Carolina, although 173 monuments still stood, as of last year.

There are a few narrow exceptions to the Monument Protection Law. The statue or memorial can be removed if it is structurally unsafe or dangerous and threatens public safety. Only a builder inspector can legally make that determination.

The plaintiffs argued that Alamance County’s County Manager should have qualified as a “similar official” under the building inspector exception.

In June of that year, the Alamance County Manager emailed the commissioners, asking them to consider removing the monument. He was concerned about the safety of “both protesters attending in favor of and in opposition to the monument,” according to court records.

However, the judges ruled today that the county manager’s role differs from that of a building inspector, and thus doesn’t have legal authority to have a monument removed for public safety reasons.

The judges also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that maintenance of the monument violates the state constitution because it is a misuse of taxpayer money and doesn’t serve a public purpose.

The judges cited state law that allows a board of county commissioners “to expend from the public funds of the county an amount sufficient to erect a substantial iron fence” to protect monuments “erected to the memory of our Confederate dead.”

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the commissioners were violating North Carolina’s Open Courts Clause by maintaining the monument, “which conveys the appearance of judicial prejudice because it broadcasts officially sanctioned racial degradation.”

The judges also denied that claim, ruling that Open Courts Clause “does not prohibit the placement of an object of historical remembrance in or around a courthouse, though some may find offense. Indeed, in many courthouses and other government buildings across our State and nation, there are depictions of historical individuals who held certain views in their time many today would find offensive.”

The appellate court has ruled differently on the monument issue, depending on the arguments. Last August, judges sided with the Town of Louisburg, where officials removed a monument from downtown and relocated it to a cemetery. The court found local residents, who had sued the town, did not have legal standing.

And in November 2023, the state’s highest court heard oral arguments in a case brought by the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops, which is suing to stop the city’s removal of the monument and potentially force them to re-erect it.

The state Supreme Court has not yet issued its ruling on this case.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.