ATLANTA — The Georgia Senate has approved stronger protections for public monuments, in reaction to a growing nationwide push for the removal of statues honoring the Confederacy.
Critics say the bill will help preserve Confederate tributes that were installed years after the Civil War with the intent of intimidating black citizens.
The proposal, approved Tuesday by a 34-17 vote, would add protections for all Georgia monuments, including civil rights memorials.
Under the bill, any person who damages or destroys a monument could be liable for triple the cost to repair or replace it, plus "exemplary damages" — additional costs meant as a punishment. They could also be required to pay attorney's fees and court costs.
Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga said the bill "allows our history to be preserved" and addresses the vandalism of monuments. Mullis said people who do such things are "not handling their opposition ... appropriately."
The original bill would have removed the ability to add an explainer or interpretive guide to a monument, such as adding context about the ills of slavery next to a monument to the Confederacy, but was amended so that interpretive guides are still allowed.
Another amendment, offered by Democratic Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta, would have allowed local communities to move or remove monuments that they own. That amendment failed.
The original law protecting Georgia monuments was a 2001 compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the state flag.
Pressure has been mounting for decades to take down monuments honoring the Confederacy. It picked up steam after a speeding car killed a woman and injured dozens in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017. The vehicle plowed into a crowd protesting a gathering of white supremacists whose goal was to protect a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Confederate monuments at public parks, county courthouses and college campuses across the nation fell almost daily for weeks following the incident.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, laws in seven states, including Georgia, protect Confederate monuments.
The marble statue of a Confederate soldier that has stood outside the Bulloch County Courthouse as a memorial to fallen Bulloch Civil War soldiers was dedicated April 26, 1909. "In Memory of the Confederate Soldiers, 1861–1865" is one of the inscriptions around its base. The Statesboro Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy started the drive to raise money in early summer 1908.
In 2012, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ogeechee Rifles Camp 941, undertook restoration work on the monument. This included cleaning and sealing the statute, replacing four missing stone cannonballs around its base, planting roses and adding a fence and lighting.
Following the murder of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church by an avowed white supremacist in the summer of 2015, a petition was brought to the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners to remove the statue from the courthouse. After several contentious meetings, the commission voted unanimously to keep the statue at the courthouse.
In 2017, neighboring Alabama passed a law that prohibits relocating, removing, altering or renaming public buildings, streets and memorials that have been standing for more than 40 years.
Birmingham officials had discussed removing a 52-foot-tall obelisk erected to honor Confederate veterans in a downtown park in 1905. After the monument protection law was approved, the city instead put wooden panels around it, just days after the deadly violence in Charlottesville.
The attorney general's office sued Birmingham, and a judge declared the law void. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Michael Graffeo rejected the state's arguments that lawmakers had the power to protect historical monuments statewide.
The state is appealing the ruling, and the law remains in effect during the appeal.