NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Four Confederate monuments that historical preservation groups were attempting to protect can be taken down, a federal judge ruled.
The four groups the Monumental Task Committee, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130 sued the City of New Orleans last month challenging whether it had authority to remove the monuments after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a controversial ordinance last month authorizing just that.
In a 62-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said that plaintiffs' concerns that the monuments would be harmed as they are moved cannot be adequately addressed prior to their removal, especially since he assumes the city will hire a qualified agency for the work.
Barbier additionally said the monuments are on city property and that removal is within the its discretion.
Last June, after a gunman killed nine and wounded three others in a predominately African-American church in Charleston, S.C., several communities throughout the South reconsidered the message sent by the prominent display of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag. Several states removed the flag from statehouse grounds and state-issued license plates.
Landrieu called for the removal of the Confederate memorials in New Orleans in the same spirit.
During a 60-day public comment period that followed Landrieu's proposal, two city commissions called for the ultimate removal of four monuments associated with the Confederacy.
They include a 60-foot-tall marble column and statue dedicated to Gen. Robert E. Lee; a large statue of Louisiana born Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback; a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and an obelisk dedicated to white supremacists who wanted to overthrow a biracial New Orleans Reconstruction government.
The plaintiffs had argued the city was wrong to declare the monuments a "nuisance" and call for their removal.
Judge Barbier's ruling noted that "plaintiffs do not argue that the City Council was arbitrary and capricious in concluding that the four monuments honor ideologies that are inconsistent with equal protection."
He went on to say that the meanings of monuments are often multilayered and "it frequently is not possible to identify a single 'message' that is conveyed by a monument ... The monuments at issue in this case illustrate this phenomenon, as evidenced by the unprecedented public debate over their removal.
Barbier disagreed with the plaintiffs' contention that the monuments have not been the site of past protests.
"The evidence before the City Council demonstrated that the monuments have been the sites of criminal activity and civil unrest. The monuments have been vandalized several times ... For example, the Beauregard Monument was spray-painted with the words 'Black Lives Matter' on both sides of its base in June 2015... Furthermore, the Liberty Monument was the site of a violent protest in 1993," Barbier said.
"We are pleased with the court's sound ruling on this issue," C. Hayne Rainey, the mayor's press secretary, said in a statement. "Once removed, the monuments will be stored in a city-owned warehouse until further plans can be developed for a private park or museum site where the monuments can be put in a fuller context."
The Louisiana Landmarks Society declined to comment on Barbier's ruling, and representatives for the other plaintiffs did not immediately reply with comment.
The plaintiffs were seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from taking down the monuments while their case was being considered in court. Landrieu promised not to do so until the outcome of lawsuit was determined, but Barbier ordered both parties to present arguments Jan. 14.
In his ruling, Barbier rejected the plaintiffs' claims that because the four monuments are adjacent to streetcar lines, the city doesn't have authority to remove them because those transportation projects were paid for with federal money.
The groups also argued the city would violate the National Historic Preservation Act because it failed to determine if removing the statues would have adverse impact on the adjacent historic properties. Such research is needed in order for the city to receive federal money for infrastructure projects, but Barbier said the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate "any nexus between a federally-funded project or undertaking and the removal of the monuments at issue."
Barbier ruled the city provided "substantive due process" through a series of public hearings, leading up to and including a December 17 vote to declare the monuments nuisances.
The lawsuit also insisted the city was violating its own rules by accepting $175,000 from an anonymous donor to pay for monument removal, but Barbier said those concerns are unnecessary because the city explained the money technically was coming from the Foundation for Louisiana.
Defendants in the lawsuit were the city, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.