By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - South Carolina lawmakers took a step on Monday toward removing the Confederate battle flag that flies at the state house in Columbia, long denounced as a symbol of slavery by critics.
A bill to banish the flag from a Civil War memorial on the capitol grounds to a museum passed a crucial second reading in the state Senate by an overwhelming vote of 37-3 after an emotional debate.
It faces a final reading on Tuesday before it is taken up by the lower House of Representatives.
Numerous elected officials, including Republican Governor Nikki Haley, called for the flag's removal after the June 17 killings of nine African-American churchgoers during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. Photos of the white man charged in the shootings showed him posing with the flag on a website that also carried a racist manifesto.
Among the victims was the church's pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator, and his senate desk was draped in black for Monday's debate.
The flag's defenders argue it is part of South Carolina's heritage, representing those who fought and died for the rebelling southern states in the Civil War.
They also worry that bringing down the flag, which has flown for more than 50 years at the capitol, could lead to calls for removing symbols from other monuments and changing street and place names honoring Confederate leaders.
The legislation appears to have a good chance of success and could be approved as early as Thursday. Haley has said she will have the flag removed immediately if the law is passed.
A recent poll by Charleston's Post and Courier newspaper showed it enjoys the support of a two-thirds majority in both houses as required under state law.
Several Senators on Monday spoke of being moved and inspired by the Christian forgiveness displayed by relatives of the Emanuel 9 for the shooter, adding that removal of the flag was the proper way to honor them.
"If they could be peacemakers in those dire circumstances ... I determined I can be a peacemaker when it comes to a flag flying on our State House grounds," said Senator Chip Campsen, a Republican who represents Charleston.
HEALING A DIVIDE?
At least three senators spoke in favor of keeping the flag flying.
"I do understand that what happened in Charleston got a lot of people's attention," said Republican Senator Lee Bright, who is white. "But I believe we're placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on people that hold their southern heritage high and I don't think that's fair."
Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who is white and introduced the bill, noted that he was mocked by politicians a year ago when he introduced similar legislation. He said the Charleston murders were a reminder that a racist cultural divide still existed in the state.
Removing the flag was "one small thing that we can do" to heal that divide, he said.
While some white people might have emotional ties to the Confederate flag, Senator Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat, reminded legislators that the descendants of slaves look at it differently.
"When I see a Confederate soldier, I don't get goosebumps and get all warm and fuzzy," he said. "All I'm saying is you can't force all of us to have the passion that some of you have about certain things."
The Confederate flag was raised atop the State House dome in 1961 as part of centennial commemorations of the Civil War. Critics said its placement was a sign of opposition by politicians to the black civil rights movement at the time.
In 2000, after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced an economic boycott of South Carolina and protesters marched on the state capital, lawmakers agreed to a compromise, moving the flag to a monument to Confederate war dead on the capitol grounds.
(Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)