Lawsuit challenges removal of Robert E. Lee statue

Plaintiffs claim Confederate monuments protected by state law, seek preservation of parks

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Statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park, located near the Charlottesville Downtown Mall.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Two organizations and 11 community members filed a lawsuit Monday in the Charlottesville Circuit Court against the City of Charlottesville and members of City Council over the Council’s recent votes to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Lee Park and rename the park.

The complaint filed in court claims the potential removal of the statues of Lee and Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from their eponymous parks, and the renaming of Lee and Jackson Parks, violate Virginia state code, as well as the terms of Paul Goodloe McIntire’s agreements to gift the land for both parks to the city. The complaint also argues Council members are legally required to protect and defend historic monuments.

The plaintiffs filed a temporary injunction to prevent the removal, alteration, renaming or damaging of both the parks and monuments until the case has been heard and a decision made.

Members of City Council and defendants in the case voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park Feb. 6. Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy and Council members Kristin Szakos and Bob Fenwick voted in favor of removing the statue, while Mayor Mike Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin voted against.

The Council also voted unanimously to rename Lee Park.

Despite two councillors voting against the removal of the statue, all are listed as defendants in the lawsuit in addition to the city. Attorney for the plaintiffs Elliott Harding said he thinks that all of the Council members have been working to remove the statues and change the parks.

“They’ve all been a part of the ongoing movement to facilitate these moves regardless of their final vote,” Harding said. “They’ve facilitated this along the way whether or not they voted for it.”

City Attorney Craig Brown declined to comment on the lawsuit on Monday.

The plaintiffs, which include the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. and the Monument Fund, Inc., cited a variety of reasons for their involvement in this case.

The two organizations expressed an “interest in preserving and protecting the Lee and Jackson Monuments” and have “raised and disbursed money” for the litigation, according to the complaint.

Many of the community members cite personal reasons for filing the lawsuit such as enjoying using the parks and contributing to their preservation and restoration.

“Ultimately they hope to prevent the city from violating the Virginia Code and trying to remove or damage the statue,” Harding said. “This is meant to block any damage to the memorial and the monument as they currently sit.”

The complaint alleges the statues of Lee and Jackson are Confederate monuments and war memorials protected by provisions of state law.

“If such [memorials for war veterans] are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same,” Virginia state law says.

The complaint argues City Council members violated this requirement in voting to remove the statues and rename the parks.

The city had previously anticipated the potential for a suit dealing with this part of the law.

The complaint further claims removing the statue of Lee and renaming Lee Park goes against the 1918 deed by McIntire which granted the land to the city for use as a public park. The case argues the deed detailing the gift does not permit the city to remove the statue or rename the park.

The lawsuit marks the continuation of a long debate over the city’s Confederate monuments. The case will now be subject to review from the Charlottesville Circuit Court.

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