NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A federal lawsuit is challenging a city plan to remove prominent Confederate monuments by charging that the city doesn’t own the land under three of the monuments and they are protected from removal by state and federal laws.
The suit, filed shortly after the City Council voted Thursday to remove four monuments, asks U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans to halt removal plans. The suit was filed by three preservation organizations and a New Orleans chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The decision by New Orleans is one of the most sweeping gestures yet by an American city to sever ties with its Confederate past. New Orleans, like other places, was spurred into action against Confederate symbols after the mass shooting at an African-American church in South Carolina in June that left nine parishioners dead.
The monuments slated for removal include a 60-foot-tall marble column and statue dedicated to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a large equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Louisiana-born Confederate general. Also up for removal are a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and an obelisk dedicated to a group of white supremacists who sought to topple a biracial Reconstruction government in New Orleans.
The suit says the monuments are part of the city’s history and should be protected.
“Regardless whether the Civil War era is regarded as a catastrophic mistake or a noble endeavor, it is undeniably a formative event in the history of Louisiana,” the suit says. “It is the source of much of the cultural heritage (of) this city and state, including countless novels, short stories, plays, monuments, statues, films, stories, songs, legends and other expressions of cultural identity.”
The city is relying on an ordinance that allows it to take down monuments on public property or under its control considered a “nuisance” because they foster dangerous and unlawful ideologies of supremacy and may become rallying points for violent demonstrations.
City officials have agreed that they won’t remove the monuments ahead of a Jan. 14 hearing in the case, according to court documents filed Friday.
The suit is aimed at Mayor Mitch Landrieu and, in a legal twist, the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal transportation officials for their role in paying for streetcar work that has, according to the suit, damaged the monuments. The suit also contends federal officials should stop the removal because the monuments should be considered historic elements of nearby streetcar lines.
Officials from the city and Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. A lawyer for the plaintiffs declined to comment.
Louis R. Koerner Jr., a New Orleans lawyer and historian not involved in the case, said the suit had merit.
“I think they put their foot out and tripped everybody up,” he said. He said the questions raised about whether the monuments should be viewed as integral to the streetcar work was clever and could force the city into a lengthy historic review process.
The 51-page suit contends that removal would be unlawful on many other grounds – including violating laws protecting monuments dedicated to military veterans and history.
It also argues that the Lee and Beauregard monuments are protected because they are on the National Register of Historic Places; the Davis monument, because it was nominated for the register.
The suit also claims the city’s use of the nuisance ordinance was flawed and that the monuments do not fit its definition. The suit also contends the city cannot claim ownership to three of the monuments because the land under them was donated by the city to groups raising funds for the monuments between 1877 and 1911.
The plaintiffs are the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Committee Inc. and the Beauregard Camp No. 130, a New Orleans chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
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