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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Judge rules removal of Confederate memorial at Arlington can proceed

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that the removal of a memorial to Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery can proceed.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston came one day after he issued a temporary restraining order halting its removal in response to a lawsuit filed Sunday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, by a group called Defend Arlington — which is affiliated with another group called Save Southern Heritage Florida.

A cemetery spokesperson told CBS News in a statement Tuesday evening that the removal process would proceed “immediately.”

“In accordance with this evening’s court ruling, the Army will resume the deliberate process of removing the Confederate Memorial from Arlington National Cemetery immediately,” Arlington spokesperson Kerry Meeker said. “While the work is performed, surrounding graves, headstones and the landscape will be carefully protected by a dedicated team, preserving the sanctity of all those laid to rest in Section 16.”

In his opinion Tuesday, Alston wrote that Defend Arlington “failed to establish” that its motion for a preliminary injunction was in the “public interest.”

Alston wrote that the case was attempting to put the court “at the center of a great debate between individuals extolling the virtues, romanticism and history of the Old South” and those “who believe that art accentuating what they believe is a harsh depiction of a time when a certain race of people were enslaved and treated like property is not deserving of a memorial at a place of refuge, honor and national recognition.” Alston added that the debate was one the court “does not have to resolve.”

Work to remove the memorial had begun Monday before the restraining order was issued, but the memorial remains in place on cemetery grounds.

The cemetery had said on Friday that it expected to complete the removal this week. It said the removal was required by Congress, and that it was complying with environmental and historic-preservation regulations.

However, he said the court’s place was not “to resolve this great debate” but instead to decide the “relevant case law, statutory law and administrative direction which governs this Court’s decision

The lawsuit accused the Army, which runs the cemetery, of violating regulations in seeking a hasty removal of the memorial.

“The removal will desecrate, damage, and likely destroy the Memorial longstanding at ANC as a grave marker and impede the Memorial’s eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” the lawsuit accuses.

The temporary restraining order issued Monday said that a lawyer for the plaintiffs represented to the court that the work at the memorial involves the disturbance of gravesites.

However, in his opinion, Alston said that he had personally visited the memorial and that “it was clear to the Court that Defendants were making every effort to protect and respect the surrounding gravesites.”

Last week, a federal judge in the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit seeking to block the removal of the memorial filed by the same plaintiffs.

Alston wrote that Defend Arlington “failed to make” him aware of the other case, calling it a “troubling omission,” and later adding that “this critical omission reveals a lack of candor, in that Plaintiffs would not even mention the extensive litigation that took place in the District of Columbia.”

John Rowley, an attorney for Defend Arlington, said in a statement to CBS News that “while we respect the Court’s decision, we continue to believe the evidence shows that in its haste to remove the Reconciliation Memorial, the DoD failed to conduct the reviews mandated by law regarding historic preservation and environmental impacts.”

The statue, unveiled in 1914, features a bronze woman, crowned with olive leaves, standing on a 32-foot pedestal, and was designed to represent the American South. According to Arlington, the woman holds a laurel wreath, a plow stock and a pruning hook, with a biblical inscription at her feet that says: “They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Some of the figures also on the statue include a Black woman depicted as “Mammy” holding what is said to be the child of a white officer, and an enslaved man following his owner to war.

Last year, an independent commission recommended the memorial be taken down as part of a report to Congress on renaming of military bases and assets that commemorate the Confederacy.

More than 40 House Republicans wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently, arguing that the commission overstepped its authority when it recommended that the monument be removed.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin disagrees with the decision and plans to move the monument to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in the Shenandoah Valley, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said.

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