A Texas board voted unanimously Thursday to deny an application for specialty license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag, setting the stage for a legal showdown.
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board voted 8-0 to deny an application for a license plate by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The specialty plate would have depicted a Confederate battle flag, a square emblem crisscrossed by the Stars and Bars.
Michael Givens, SCV commander-in-chief, said the organization would file a lawsuit challenging the Texas DMV decision. The group has tangled in court with several other states over Confederate-themed license plates, and has always won.
“What’s really disturbing is that now their state is going to have to pay for a lawsuit. And we’ve never lost,” said Mr. Givens.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, who opposed the proposed license plate, called the vote “a welcome decision.” The vote at the board’s regular meeting in Austin, Texas, came after two hours of emotional public testimony.
“License plates are designed to promote tourism and commerce, to create positive identity and awareness, and to showcase those riches that make our state unique,” said Mrs. Jackson Lee in a statement. “The Confederate flag, long recognized in our generation a symbol of slavery, racism and defeat, accomplishes none of those purposes.”
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that the license plate was intended to honor the soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, not glorify slavery.
“Tens of thousands of Texans marched into battle behind that flag, and we are here to commemorate the soldiers, not the politicians,” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, an SCV member who sponsored the application, at the hearing.
Nine states now offer Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty plates. At least three of those states had refused to issue the plates at first, but lost legal challenges filed by the SCV claiming that the states had violated their constitutional right to free speech.
The organization’s most recent court victory came in June, when a judge ruled that the state of Florida must issue a “Confederate Heritage” license plate depicting the Confederate flag. State lawmakers are considering whether to block that order with legislation.
“Why would we not sue to get what everybody else has? And why would they discriminate against us?” said Mr. Givens.
The Texas DMV board deadlocked 4-4 in an earlier vote in April, then decided to hold another vote in June in order to allow the ninth board member to break the tie. That vote was delayed when one board member died.
During the lull between votes, the board came under stiff public pressure to reject the proposed plate. The NAACP launched a petition drive against the proposal, while 19 members of the state House fired off a letter to the board urging a vote against the plate.
“At best, displaying this inflammatory symbol on state-sanctioned license plates is insensitive, and serves only to alienate and divide,” said the Oct. 20 letter. “At worst, it communicates that we, as a state, condone the kind of injustices the flag symbolizes and that we fought so hard to leave behind.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also came out against the plate, saying Oct. 28 that “we don’t need to be scraping old wounds,” despite his previous support for the preservation of Confederate symbols. Mr. Perry is running for the Republican nomination for president.
“This is a board decision. The governor did not personally support the Confederate plate,” said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle.
Mr. Givens said he was interested in finding out why four members of the board had changed their votes since the April meeting. One of the board’s nine members was absent at Thursday’s hearing.
“These four people - they must have suffered some pressure from the outside,” Mr. Givens said.
•This article was based in part on wire service reports.