How A Confederate Flag in Danville Could Affect the Rest of Virginia

May 26, 2016

The Sutherlin Museum in Danville.
Credit Ron Zanoni/Flickr

Does Virginia law prohibit a city from altering a war memorial? Now what if that memorial is to the Civil War, and features a Confederate flag?

Those questions are at the heart of a court case coming out of Danville, Virginia, a city that once was capitol of the Confederate States. 

In 1994, a group of citizens donated a Confederate War Memorial to the city. It was placed on the grounds of the Sutherlin Mansion, a building that once served as a capitol building for the southern states and today is Danville's Fine Arts Museum. 

The memorial is an obelisk structure with a flag flying from the top. That flag was the Third National Flag of the Confederacy.

"This is not the battle flag that most people recognize as the so called stars and bars," says Kevin Martingayle, an attorney. "This was the actual third national flag that was part of the official confederate government back during the Civil War."

Fast forward 20 years, and the Danville City Council voted to remove the flag from the government-owned pole. A group of citizens sued, claiming state law prevents the city from changing the war memorial.

Martingayle is one of the group's lawyers. He argues the obelisk and flag are a protected war memorial under state law.

"Markers for old buildings do not have the same legal protection in the code of Virginia, however war monuments and war memorials do have significant legal protection in the code of Virginia," says Martingayle.

The circuit court disagreed, and ruled Danville had the right to remove the flag.

But now Martingayle is trying to get the Virginia Supreme Court to step in and clarify state law -- which he claims protects all war memorials and monuments, including those to the Confederacy.

"There are a lot of localities that have war monuments and war memorials that some people may not like and may want to take to down and other people do like and want to preserve and keep," Martingayle says. "So we need to have a definitive ruling so that everybody knows what the rules of the game are going forward, in terms of dealing with these things."

If the Virginia Supreme Court agrees, they'll hear full arguments on each side of the case sometime this Fall.