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Opinion/Editorial: Statues never had protection

Opinion/Editorial: Statues never had protection

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It has been clear for some time that Charlottesville’s Confederate statuary was on the way out.

The General Assembly last year updated the law to give localities more control over such decisions and — this is significant — even the organization pressing a lawsuit to save the statues offered to revise the language of its suit to accommodate the new law.

It had argued that an earlier version of the law, as updated in 1997 to include Confederate monuments, protected Charlottesville’s statues in situ.

The Virginia Supreme Court has now ruled that a “plain language reading” of the law gives Charlottesville the right to remove the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

From a “plain layman’s reading” (which is not a judicial concept), it seems to us that the ruling is based not so much on language as on timing.

Simply put, the court held that because the statues were erected long before any law came into existence regulating them, the subsequent law and its iterations did not apply.

“The Lee Statue and the Jackson Statue were not erected pursuant to Code § 15.2-1812 and so, the prohibitions against disturbing or interfering with monuments or memorials erected pursuant to Code § 15.2-1812 do not apply to the Statues,” the opinion reads. “In other words, Code § 15.2-1812 did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them.”

Protection of “war memorials” entered the State Code in 1950; the Charlottesville statues were erected in the early 1920s. In 1997, as momentum was gathering for removal of Confederate emblems, the General Assembly specifically added “Civil War” monuments to the list of protected memorials. In 2020, the legislature specifically allowed localities to remove or relocate monuments or alter them by adding context; localities also are permitted to hold local nonbinding referenda on the disposition of its monuments.

None of this matters in the Charlottesville case, the court said, because these particular monuments predate the law.

It was the argument the city had been making all along.

As a general principle, we agree that laws should not be made retroactive. It’s a tricky matter to criminalize activity that was legal when it occurred, a reversal that traps otherwise innocent individuals and entities in a Kafka-esque nightmare. For that reason, activity from an older period is often “grandfathered,” or exempted from new laws or ordinances.

The 1997 revision of the state monuments law clearly was written to draw Civil War monuments — in Virginia, that largely means “Confederate” — under legal protection.

But that revision was moot, the court said, because even the original law did not apply to the Charlottesville statues.

As a general principle, we also agree that authority should be rooted in local government as often as possible, since local leadership is best positioned to know what is right for local residents.

But even that principle would be moot in this case, under the court’s ruling, because the latest version of the law — giving local governments more authority over monuments — is irrelevant also.

It has been clear for some time that Charlottesville’s Confederate statuary should be on the way out — or at least off their pedestals in places of public prominence.

The statues have merit artistically and historically, but no longer reflect cultural norms — and that’s a positive development, long in arriving.

Let them be moved to a location that preserves their artistic and historical value, but eliminates the implication that — by their position and prominence on city land — they are venerated by the people of Charlottesville.

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