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Utah’s lawmakers are split on removing Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol

(Tribune file photo) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks at the Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention in this photo from Sat., May 19, 2017.

A group of Republicans, including Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart, voted with Democrats to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol — the latest reaction to a broad anti-racist movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

The measure passed the House 305-113 on Wednesday, with 72 Republicans voting with Democrats in support. In a tweet explaining his vote, Stewart wrote: “The U.S. Capitol should be reserved for pieces of art that inspire and unite us as a nation.”

In Utah’s House delegation, he was joined by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, while the state’s other GOP congressmen, Reps. John Curtis and Rob Bishop, voted against the measure.

The bill comes during a national discussion on race and discrimination that has resulted in debates over the symbols and people celebrated in the United States. In some cities, similar statues have been knocked over by protesters as they have rallied over the past two months. And it’s turned now to lawmakers scrutinizing those honored in their own halls.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, the only Black Republican in the House, wrote on Twitter: “Confederate statues don’t belong in the U.S. Capitol. Anyone committing treason against this great experiment we call America in order to keep slavery alive doesn’t deserve a place in a building that represents freedom and unity.”

There are 12 statues honoring members of the Confederacy in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall where each state picks two figures to represent it. The measure would remove those, including a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote in an 1857 Supreme Court decision that slaves were not and could never be U.S. citizens. That would be replaced under the proposal by a sculpture of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.

The bill also specifically names the statue of John C. Calhoun; he served as both a vice president and secretary of state who in the early 1800s led a pro-slavery faction. And it calls out John C. Breckinridge, another former vice president, who was the secretary of war for the Confederacy.

Among the other Confederate statues are other figures who wanted to “preserve the white standards of civilization” and pushed white supremacists beliefs.

Curtis challenged the move Wednesday, saying it was too emotional and no different than “the knee-jerk removal of statues by mob rule.” He said that the Civil War “was a dark time in our nation’s history,” but he wants a “reasoned and thoughtful” approach to looking at the statues.

“I applaud the national discussion surrounding who we honor, where we honor them, and who gets to decide,” he added. “Clearly, in our midst, we have government-sponsored idolizing of those who should not be our heroes.”

Neither Bishop nor McAdams’ offices responded to requests for comment.

Utah’s two statues are not part of the bill — though that doesn’t mean they’re without controversy. The state recently voted to replace one of its figures with Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in Utah and the nation. That will happen next month, switching out the current statue of TV inventor Philo Farnsworth.

The other is of Brigham Young. Another statue of the early Latter-day Saints leader was vandalized at the Provo campus that bears his name last month where someone covered it in red paint and wrote the word “racist” on the stand.

Young practiced segregation and preached the superiority of whites as a mandate from God. In a speech in 1852, he said: “In as much as we believe in the Bible ... we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses ... which they have brought upon themselves.”

That idea of being “cursed” has since been abandoned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The states whose statues are targeted by the proposal for the U.S. Capitol will have to remove them and pick a new one. Federal law dictates that only states, not members of Congress, have the right to replace the statues.

The proposal has come up before — and Confederate leader Robert E. Lee has previously been banished from Statuary Hall. But this is the most bipartisan support it has gotten. Until now, it had never been heard on the House floor. Some leaders said the time was right, following Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May, as well as the death last week of Rep. John Lewis, a prominent civil rights leader.

It will go next to the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already voiced disapproval.