A Virginia judge has blocked efforts by Charlottesville city leaders to remove the Confederate statue at the center of the deadly white supremacist violence in the city in 2017.
Judge Richard Moore of Charlottesville Circuit Court ruled Friday that removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee would violate a state law protecting war memorials, The Daily Progress reported.
Moore issued a permanent injunction to prevent the removal of both Lee’s statue and also a separate monument to Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson which city leaders had also hoped to take down.
The ruling marks the near-end of a lawsuit that has dragged through the courts for more than two years.
Charlottesville city council voted in 2017 to remove the two statues which they criticized as being vestiges of a racist time.
The monuments, erected in downtown Charlottesville in the 1920s during the Jim Crow era, “were part of a regime of city-sanctioned segregation that denied African-Americans equal access to government and public spaces,” attorneys for the city said in court filings earlier this year, per The New York Times.
“The fact that certain Charlottesville residents are unaware of the statues’ history does not change that history or the messages the statues send,” the lawyers added.
Local residents filed a lawsuit in March 2017 to stop the city from dismantling the statues. A few months later, white nationalists held a “Unite the Right” rally in the city, in part to protest the removal of Lee’s statue.
The demonstration turned deadly when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in the attack and dozens of others were injured.
In the aftermath of the rally, black shrouds were used to cover the two statues but Moore ordered the coverings removed in 2018.
The judge argued at the time that any possible harm that could be caused by removing the tarps was outweighed by the damage that could be inflicted on the public “in not being able to view or enjoy” the statues.
Ruling against the city again on Friday, Moore said the monuments could not be removed, disturbed or encroached upon because they were protected under the state’s historic preservation law.
The city’s attorneys had argued the statute ― first introduced in 1904 ― was unconstitutional as some of the monuments it protects infringes upon the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Moore, however, rejected this argument.
“I don’t think I can infer that a historical preservation statute was intended to be racist,” he said in his decision, according to USA Today. “Certainly, [racism] was on their minds, but we should not judge the current law by that intent.”
Moore ruled that no damages could be awarded to the plaintiffs but said the city would have to pay their legal fees.
The exact amount has yet to be determined, the Progress reported.