A U.S. district judge rejected attempts Thursday to block construction contracts for a World War II memorial on the National Mall, raising the likelihood that work on the controversial project could begin as early as next month.
The National Coalition to Save Our Mall sought a temporary restraining order to block such contracts while its broader lawsuit to derail the project is pending. But U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. turned down the request, allowing the American Battle Monuments Commission to move forward with contracts for the sprawling memorial, to be built on the open space between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Only hours after the ruling, the commission announced that it had awarded a $56-million contract to two companies to start construction on the memorial this summer.
Kennedy did not rule on the coalition's claims that the project violates federal environmental and other laws. He hinted, however, that he is reluctant to stop the project, which Congress has endorsed. Kennedy did not set a hearing date for the broader suit.
Memorial critics hope to argue that case in the coming days and have vowed to appeal further adverse rulings in the courts.
"Having fought in the Battle of the Bulge, I'm used to long fights," George Idelson, a World War II veteran and memorial critic, said in a statement. "Our National Mall and the integrity of our democracy are worth fighting for. We are going to keep fighting the good fight."
The memorial to honor the men and women who helped wage one of America's least controversial wars has ignited a fracas of its own. Critics have assailed its design, which some consider reminiscent of Nazi architecture, and its location. In addition, opponents complain that the review process failed to answer questions about the project's environmental impact, including the potential spread of arsenic now in the soil.
But in a high-profile campaign backed by such luminaries as former Sen. Bob Dole and actor Tom Hanks, the American Legion and other veterans' lobbies pushed hard for approval of the memorial.
Congress recently passed legislation to ensure the memorial would move forward and President Bush signed it last week. That legislation specifically sought to preclude further efforts, including legal challenges, to block the project.
"Congress has spoken very clearly here," said Silas DeRoma, a Justice Department attorney. "Congress intended that the memorial be built."
In opposing the request for a temporary restraining order, government lawyers said Thursday that no digging or other groundwork would take place until at least July 5, after the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall.
Completion of the memorial is expected in 2004, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission. As envisioned by architect Friedrich St. Florian, it will feature a sunken pool, fountains, two 43-foot granite arches, commemorative pillars, wreaths and bronze eagles sprawled across the Mall.