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Ohio lawmakers reject ban on Confederate memorabilia at county fairs

'It shows how deeply rooted racism is in this body,' said state Rep. Juanita Brent.
Image' Juanita Brent
State Rep. Juanita Brent, a Democrat, introduced a bill in the Legislature that would have banned Confederate memorabilia from local and county fairs, but it was voted down, 56-34.Office of Rep Juanita Brent

Ohio lawmakers have thwarted two bids to bar Confederate memorabilia from certain public events even as thousands of Americans protest the police killing of George Floyd and organizations like NASCAR ban the "banner of white supremacy."

Overnight, the Republican majority in the statehouse rejected an amendment that would “prohibit the sale, display, possession or distribution of Confederate memorabilia at local and county fairs.”

“The Confederate flag is a banner of white supremacy and a reminder of our nation’s original sin of slavery,” Rep. Juanita Brent, a Cleveland Democrat and sponsor of the amendment, said in a statement.

Brent also noted that in 2015 the Ohio State Fair banned the sale of Confederate flag merchandise.

But GOP lawmakers argued such a ban would violate First Amendment rights and removed it from a bill aimed at providing aid to the 87 county and seven independent fairs that were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Brent told NBC News.

A motorcyclist flies a Confederate flag while outside the state Capitol in Olympia, Washington, last month.Jason Redmond / AFP - Getty Images file

It was the second defeat for Brent, who proposed a similar amendment on Wednesday to the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee only to see it rejected on a party line vote.

A disappointed Brent said Friday she was trying to apply to local and county fairs the same standard that has been in place for five years for the Ohio State Fair. Nationwide protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody have shown that people are ready for such a ban, she said.

“Listening to the civil unrest, we need to take action and make changes so the people feel like they’re being heard,” said Brent, who is Black.

Brent said Republican lawmakers gave “the usual reasons to do nothing.”

“They talked about the First Amendment, about how local authorities should decide,” she said. "I reminded them the ban on the flag at the state fair has not been challenged in court."

A marathon session ended in a 56 to 34 vote, mostly along party lines.

"Ladies and gentlemen, either we believe in the First Amendment for all, or we slide down the slippery slope of restricting its application only to those whom we favor today or tomorrow," House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, said early Friday after the vote.

State Rep. Jamie Callender, a Republican, acknowledged in a statement Friday that "we have a problem in this nation."

"But by taking away or infringing upon one of the fundamental rights that allows us to get to that discussion is not helpful," he said. "As repugnant as some speech may be, this nation has zealously protected, yes, the union soldiers who fought in the Civil War, those ancestors of ours who fought in the Revolution, in the First World War, in the Second World War, fought for our Constitution and for our right to free speech, even speech we disagree."

Brent said she has heard that argument before.

“I was surprised and not surprised because it just shows you how deeply rooted racism is in this body,” she said.

The development came just days after Ohio Sen. Steve Huffman, a Republican, asked during a hearing on whether to declare racism a public health threat whether the “colored population” is most susceptible to the coronavirus because “they do not wash their hands as well as other groups.”

Ohio fought on the Union side during the Civil War and nearly 7,000 Buckeyes were killed fighting the Confederates. Several of the best-known Union generals were originally from Ohio, including future U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman and Philip Sheridan.

Brent said that tragic history is lost on people who fly the Confederate flag.

“The Confederacy is so deeply rooted among racists, even though our state fought against that,” she said.