(Reuters) – The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that the state can take down a towering statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a centerpiece of protests against racial injustice, from its capital city of Richmond.
Ruling in two cases, the court said Governor Ralph Northam could remove the statue because restrictions in deeds from 1887 and 1890 that transferred the statue to Virginia no longer reflected the state’s values, and were therefore unenforceable.
“Today it is clear, the largest Confederate monument in the South is coming down,” Northam, a Democrat, said in a statement.
“When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years,” Northam added.
The 21-foot (6.4-meter) bronze statue located on Monument Avenue in the Confederacy’s former capital depicts Lee in military attire atop his horse, and sits on a 40-foot (12.2 m) pedestal.
Northam announced plans to remove the statue in June 2020, 10 days after a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd, who was Black, sparking nationwide protests.
The removal was challenged by nearby residents who said they had a property right to enforce the deeds, and that an 1889 legislative resolution required leaving the statue alone.
It was also challenged by a descendant of the family that transferred the statue, who described what the court called his “familial pride” in the statue.
But the court said restrictive covenants in the deeds were “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.”
Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, declined immediate comment.
Northam said removing the 12-ton statue would be a multi-day process, and would not begin this week.
Richmond and other U.S. cities have removed various Confederate monuments since Floyd’s death. Protesters have taken down other monuments.
The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865. Lee died in 1870.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)