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Politics & Government

Idaho House Votes To Give Itself Power Over Historical Monuments

The Idaho State Flag hanging inside the Statehouse Rotunda.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Idaho House lawmakers want the final say over the removal and renaming of statues or memorials dedicated to historic figures.

They approved a bill 51-19 Tuesday, largely along party lines. The proposal would require legislative approval before a school district renamed a building or before a city renamed a street if they’re named after historical figures.

Relocating a statue to a place of “similar prominence” would not need prior approval, nor would temporarily relocating a monument that needed to be cleaned or repaired.

The legislation is in response to last summer’s civil unrest in which statues of historical figures in American history were removed or vandalized. Many of these statues depicted confederate figures or slaveholders – including the Founding Fathers.

“I mean, it almost looked like the Russian Revolution last year and it was absolutely despicable,” said Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger (R-Lewiston).

The San Francisco School Board also recently chose to rename 44 schools that were dedicated to people with “ties to racism” or who have “dishonorable legacies.”

That includes George Washington, America’s first president, who owned 317 slaves before setting them free while on his deathbed.

It also includes an elementary school named after U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D), who became San Francisco’s mayor after the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978.

During her tenure, a confederate battle flag flew as part of a display at the city’s civic center. Demonstrators took down the flag twice in 1984 before she ordered it not to be replaced at the request of Doris Ward, a Black city supervisor.

Idaho lawmakers supporting the bill frequently said that history should not be erased.

“This is a check and a balance against a kind of intolerance that cannot even see or hear about something that is less than perfect,” said Rep. Julianne Young (R-Blackfoot).

Rep. James Ruchti (D-Pocatello), who voted against the bill, said these decisions should be left up to local governments.

He mentioned Chinese Peak near Pocatello, which was originally named using a racist slur after a Chinese man died near the summit.

Ruchti said it was an embarrassment for the community and those decisions should be kept locally.

“These are things that we need to decide. This is what local control is all about.”

The legislation from Rep. Doug Okuniewicz (R-Hayden) is modeled after a similar law in South Carolina called the Heritage Act.

That law passed as a compromise to remove the confederate battle flag that flew over the dome of the South Carolina Capitol. It was relocated to a new poll elsewhere on the capitol grounds, but was fully removed in 2015 after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, gunned down nine worshipers at a historic Black church in Charleston.

The Heritage Act is currently facing legal challenges in South Carolina.

Those legal challenges may come to Idaho, too, if the bill is signed into law. The Associated Press reports the state attorney general's office issued an opinion on the proposal. State lawyers say it could be unconstitutional for several reasons, including that it might violate the First Amendment. 

Idaho senators will take up the issue next.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio