Supporters of Confederate monuments scored at least a temporary legal victory Wednesday as a judge in Charlottesville, Virginia, declined to throw out a lawsuit challenging the city’s move to take down a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The hulking bronze memorial, which has stood in a Charlottesville park for nearly a century, was a focal point of violent clashes Aug. 12 at a rally attended by hundreds of white supremacists. The demonstration drew throngs of counterprotesters, one of whom was killed in the mayhem, making Charlottesville the latest epicenter in a national debate over the propriety of civic monuments honoring the Confederacy.
After the city council in February voted to remove the statue, supporters of the memorial, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sued Charlottesville, arguing a Virginia law prohibits the removal of the Lee sculpture.
At hearing last month, attorneys for the city asked Judge Richard Moore of Charlottesville Circuit Court to throw out the lawsuit, saying the state law cited by the plaintiffs does not apply to Charlottesville’s Lee memorial. In a ruling Wednesday, Moore told lawyers that he would not throw out the case – at least not yet.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Benjamin Doherty, a leading organizer of opposition to the Lee statue, who was in the courtroom as Moore announced his decision. But Doherty, a lawyer and law librarian at the University of Virginia, said the case “isn’t over.”
At issue in the lawsuit is a state statute that bars counties and other local jurisdictions from removing public memorials to war veterans.
When it was passed by the General Assembly in 1904, the war-memorial law applied only to counties, and not to cities such as Charlottesville, which is independent of any county. The law was amended in 1997 to include cities.
Last month’s hearing focused on whether the law should be applied retroactively, prohibiting cities – in this case, Charlottesville – from removing war memorials that were installed before the amendment was approved in 1997. The city argued that the protection law does not reach back to statues erected in the 1920s, such as the Lee memorial. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other plaintiffs disagreed.
In his ruling Wednesday, Moore sided with the plaintiffs, saying the 1904 law applies retroactively to war memorials erected after the law was enacted.
However, the judge questioned whether the Lee statue – in which the long-ago general, in uniform, is depicted astride his horse – is technically a war memorial. If Moore decides it is not a war memorial, then the 1904 law would not apply.
Moore told the plaintiffs that they need to make a stronger case than they already have that the Lee monument is a war memorial. He gave then three weeks to do so.
Amid the Aug. 12 violence, an Ohio man who had long espoused pro-Nazi views allegedly rammed his car into another vehicle intentionally on a crowded street, sending pedestrians flying. A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 other people were hurt.
The suspect is charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.