Virginia Supreme Court rules Richmonds Confederate statue can come down

(UPI) -- Richmond's 60-foot-tall statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback can be removed, the Virginia Supreme Court said Thursday.

Virginia Supreme Court rules Richmonds Confederate statue can come down

An injunction had stopped the state from removing the statue while two cases allowing the bronze statue's removal were pending appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court. But the state's high court said in two unanimous rulings for both cases Thursday it could be removed.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had ordered the removal of the bronze statue, located at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Allen Avenue, and other Confederate statues last year amid unrest following the the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But William Gregory, a descendent of the family that donated the statue of Lee on horseback for the monument filed a lawsuit against Northam and the director of the Department of General Services, which would have removed the statue.

Gregory alleged that the 1887 and 1890 deeds giving the monument and parcel of land where it was erected to the state created a covenant prohibiting the removal of the monument. In particular, the 1890 deed stated that the state of Virginia "will hold said statue and pedestal and circle of ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose." After that suit failed, five area residents, including two in the Monument Avenue Historic District, lost a suit, arguing similarly that the deeds required the state to hold the monument as "perpetually sacred."

The Virginia Supreme Court order in the Gregory case, which was authored by the court, said that the lower court "did not err in concluding" that the deeds did not create a particular right to Gregory to "any ownership interest."

"Thus, Gregory has no property right, related to the Lee Monument, to enforce against the Commonwealth," the order stated.

The order affirmed the lower court's ruling and ordered injunctive requests be denied.

Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote the unanimous opinion in the residents case.

Even if the residents were correct that the deeds "created restrictive covenants, those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees," Goodwyn wrote in the conclusion of the opinion.

Goodwyn added that Northam's order to remove the Lee statue did not violate the state's constitution, the residents' claims were without merit, and all injunctions were dissolved.