The city of Norfolk, which wants to remove a Confederate monument from its downtown business district, filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging a Virginia law that city officials say is blocking their plan to relocate the statue to a cemetery.

The law, enacted in 1904 and amended several times in the past century, bars the removal or alteration of public war memorials in the state. In Charlottesville, Confederate-heritage enthusiasts have relied on the preservation law in litigation that has stopped officials there from taking down two Confederate statues.

The efforts in Norfolk, Charlottesville and elsewhere are part of a broad push in recent years throughout the South to banish Confederate imagery from public spaces. Critics argue that rebel statues and other iconography honoring Old Dixie are symbolic of institutionalized white supremacism.

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In 2017, the Norfolk City Council passed a resolution saying it intended to move a towering, city-owned Confederate monument from a downtown intersection to Elmwood Cemetery. But the resolution said no action would be taken while the state preservation law remained in effect, because violating it could expose the city to financial penalties.

The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk alleges that the preservation law unconstitutionally hinders Norfolk’s right to free expression.

“The purpose of this suit is to unbuckle the straitjacket that the Commonwealth has placed the City and the City Council in,” the complaint said. “Because the Monument is the City’s speech, the City has a constitutional right to alter that speech” by moving the statue to a less conspicuous location.

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It is “a right that the Commonwealth cannot take away,” the lawsuit said.

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After the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, statue defenders sued the city in March 2017, citing the preservation law.

Five months later, on Aug. 11 and 12, hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally. Stunned by the deadly street violence and outpouring of racist and anti-Semitic hate that weekend, the Charlottesville council voted to also remove a public statue of rebel Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

In rulings this year, a judge in Charlottesville Circuit Court decided that the preservation law applies to the Charlottesville statues. The next step for the city is an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

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The Norfolk City Council reacted to the 2017 Charlottesville violence by passing the resolution to remove the 112-year-old statue from a downtown intersection. Two activists then sued the city in state court, trying to force it to act on the resolution, even with the preservation law in effect. That state lawsuit was dismissed last month.

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