Northam signs bills on Confederate monuments, LGBTQ protections

Governor Ralph Northam (FILE)
Governor Ralph Northam (FILE)(NBC)
Updated: Apr. 12, 2020 at 10:23 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a number of bills Saturday, including anti-discrimination legislation that offers new protections for LGBTQ people and another measure that gives localities permission to remove Confederate monuments.

Northam’s office announced in news releases that he had taken action on those and other measures ahead of the end-of-day Saturday deadline to amend, sign or veto most legislation passed during this year’s legislative session, including the budget.

Advocates of the nondiscrimination bill, called the Virginia Values Act, say it will make Virginia the first Southern state to offer those protections for LGBTQ people.

The legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public or private employment, public spaces and credit transactions. It also lays out causes of action that would allow individuals, or in certain circumstances the attorney general, to sue over alleged discrimination.

“No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are,” the governor said in a statement.

The measure passed over the objection of many Christian organizations that raised religious liberty concerns.

Final passage of the Confederate monuments bill means that starting July 1, localities will have the ability to remove, relocate, or contextualize the monuments in their communities as they see fit.

Virginia is home to more than 220 public memorials to the Confederacy, according to Northam’s office. Many of those have been a long-running source of controversy.

A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 renewed the debate over whether Confederate monuments are appropriate in public spaces, but localities that wanted to take them down were hamstrung by the previous law, which protected them.

The new measure says a locality must hold a public hearing before voting to remove or otherwise alter a monument. If it decides to remove one, it must be offered to “any museum, historical society, government or military battlefield,” although the governing body ultimately gets the say on the “final disposition.”

Northam also signed bills Saturday that begin the process of replacing Virginia’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol and remove racist language in old laws that technically still remain on the books.

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is scheduled to take up the governor’s vetoes and amendments during a one-day session later this month.

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Statement: Take ‘Em Down Cville on Gov. Northam Signing Bill to Allow Local Control of Confederate Monuments:

Today in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law SB 183/HB 1537, a bill passed by the General Assembly that authorizes local governments to exercise control over war memorials.

The law, which takes effect on July 1, 2020, will allow cities and counties across Virginia to recontextualize, alter, move or take down Confederate monuments.

The debate in Virginia over the history, meaning and future of Confederate symbols was re-ignited after the 2015 Charleston, SC, massacre of nine African Americans by a white supremacist Confederate enthusiast, and intensified two years later after Charlottesville, VA, was rocked by violent white supremacist rallies ostensibly held to protect Confederate monuments against local efforts to remove them. While cities across the country quickly removed their Confederate monuments, Virginia state law prohibited us from doing so.

Local authorities from the cities of Charlottesville, Norfolk, Alexandria, and Richmond and Loudoun County had all requested the passage of this bill. In Charlottesville, Virginia, community members expressed their appreciation and relief that finally the city can proceed with its plans to remove two century-old monuments to General Lee and Stonewall Jackson from its downtown parks.

Take ‘Em Down Cville, the Charlottesville affiliate of Monumental Justice Virginia, a statewide coalition that lobbied for local control over Confederate monuments, said that passage and signing of this bill is a milestone to celebrate:

“Two days after the 155th anniversary of Union victory at Appomattox, Virginia is replacing the Lost Cause with the New Dominion: an inclusive Commonwealth.” - Jalane Schmidt, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, scholar-activist

“The signing of this landmark legislation is a monumental step in the direction of telling a fuller story of who we are. These Confederate monuments and other symbols of the Lost Cause should no longer control the narrative. No more odes to white supremacy and oppression.” - Zyahna Bryant, who in 2016 as a Charlottesville High School student started the petition to remove Confederate statues in Charlottesville’s downtown parks.

“The Governor’s signing marks another significant step towards the end of what has been an incredible journey. This brings to fruition the work put in by so many wonderful and talented people, many of whom I have been blessed to work with and come know personally. This doesn’t mark the end of the journey, for there is still much work left to do. This day is simply another step on the multi-rung ladder towards racial equity, as we continue to dismantle the evilness of white supremacy.” - Don Gathers, co-chair of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (BRC), a city-council appointed advisory board which held public hearings for six months in 2016

“It has been a painfully long haul but I am grateful that we finally have the legal ability to remove these racist relics from our public spaces. These Civil War Participation Trophies commemorate a failed white supremacist slaveocracy that destroyed black people’s lives by theft, violence, and extraction only to perversely glorify those horrors as heroic acts. The time to idolize white supremacy in statuary or deed is long past. This bill is the first step to building racial justice and repair for Virginia." - Dr. Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia

“For those who understand how Confederate monuments, of any kind, perpetuate white supremacist ideology, it is gratifying that these four years of education and perseverance on the part of so many, have culminated in the signing of this bill by Governor Northam.” - Dr. Andrea Douglas, an art historian and the Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, who served on Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (BRC)

“Local communities now will be able to help their public spaces reflect the values they hold today, rather than the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which fought to maintain the enslavement of their neighbors. It’s a great day in Virginia.Kristin Szakos, former Vice-Mayor (2012-2013) and member of the Charlottesville City Council (2010-2017)

A version of the bill was introduced by Charlottesville’s representatives in the Virginia General Assembly, Delegate Sally Hudson (D-57th District) and Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25th District), and was eventually carried by Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond).

Take ’Em Down Cville is made up of Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents who believe that statues honoring the Confederate Lost Cause are really monuments to the cause of white supremacy and have no place in our community’s public spaces. As long as these statues continue to stand, they send the message that white supremacy is welcome here, and – as evidenced by the violence they inspired in August 2017 – pose a real and continuing danger to our community. (@TakeEmDownCharlottesville on Facebook; @TakeEmDownCVL on Twitter)

Monumental Justice Virginia is a statewide movement of Virginians who believe that local communities should be able to make local decisions about the Confederate statues in their public spaces: after the violent 2017 national gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville it is crystal clear that localities must be able to act to protect their citizens and deal with these monuments as they see fit.