US Confederate statues are protected by law, Virginia court rules

City council in Charlottesville told it cannot remove statues of generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson

The statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph: Erin Schaff/New York Times

The statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph: Erin Schaff/New York Times

 

A Virginia judge has ruled that local authorities in Charlottesville cannot remove two Confederate statues because they are war memorials protected by state law, a decision that came nearly two years after a deadly white nationalist rally there that was nominally organised to protest against a plan to move one of the statues.

The ruling is the latest turn in a long-running battle in the US over the statues of the Confederate generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which has included a flurry of legal filings and a rally that rocked national politics.

Some, including the city of Charlottesville, which was sued after the city council initially voted to remove the Lee statue, see the statues as monuments to racism. But others, including a group of citizens who filed the lawsuit six months before the 2017 rally, argue that they are American civil war memorials.

Judge Richard E Moore of Charlottesville circuit court said in a letter dated April 25th that the statues can be viewed as both monuments to the war and as symbols of racism, but only because both sides in the case agree that they depict Confederate military leaders. That inherently makes them war memorials, he wrote.

“While some people obviously see Lee and Jackson as symbols of white supremacy, others see them as brilliant military tacticians or complex leaders in a difficult time,” the judge wrote. “In either event, the statues to them under the undisputed facts of this case still are monuments and memorials to them, as veterans of the civil war.”

The lawsuit named the city, the city council and individual councillors. Neither lawyers for the plaintiffs nor for the defendants responded to messages seeking comment on Tuesday night. The white nationalist rally in August 2017 was organised to oppose a city council vote to remove the statue of Lee. It resulted in the death of a counter-protester, and two state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash as they monitored the event.

The clash drew renewed attention to the presence of dozens of Confederate monuments across the country, many of which were taken down in the weeks and months that followed. But two years later, a legal debate continues in Charlottesville about whether the statues that incited the movement are actually monuments to the Confederacy.

War memorials

That question is central to whether the city has the authority to remove them, said Richard Schragger, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has followed the case. Under a 1904 state law that was amended in 1997 to apply to cities, local governments have the authority to authorise the building of war memorials, but they are forbidden from removing, damaging or defacing them. That power rests with the state government.

The city council in Charlottesville was sued in March 2017 by a group of citizens who said councillors had acted unlawfully when they voted a month earlier to move the Lee statue, even though the statues – which were briefly covered with plastic sheets – were never actually moved. (After the rally, the council voted to also remove the statue of Jackson. The lawsuit was then amended to include both statues.)

Bob Fenwick, a former council member who is named in the case, told a local CBS affiliate Monday that he remained “very comfortable” with his votes to remove the statues. “It’s based on a flawed law, so the law doesn’t make much difference; it was a public process, it was a lawful process, so that’s our case,” he said.

The city argued in a court filing in January that the law did not apply to these statues because they were not really war memorials. It said the statues were instead symbols of white dominance erected during the Jim Crow era to promote a romantic vision of the antebellum South.

“The statues were part of a regime of city-sanctioned segregation that denied African-Americans equal access to government and public spaces,” attorneys for the city wrote. “The fact that certain Charlottesville residents are unaware of the statues’ history does not change that history or the messages the statues send.”

In his ruling, Judge Moore said the motive of the people who erected the statues “does not change what they are”. – New York Times