- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2015

Virginia will be able to refuse to issue specialty license plates that include images of the Confederate battle flag under a ruling last week by a federal judge.

The ruling follows a Supreme Court decision in June affirming that license plates are an official document displaying government-approved information, not an open forum, and as such states are free to reject specialty designs.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser in Danville set aside a 2001 injunction that had allowed the Confederate flag to be displayed on vanity license plates, but he has yet to decide whether his order will apply retroactively to the approximately 1,700 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates already issued by Virginia or only to new plates.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring sought the ruling following both the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision and a mass shooting in June in South Carolina, that reignited debate over the Confederate battle flag.

A white gunman fatally shot nine black parishioners inside their Charleston church, targeting them because of their race, according to investigators. The presumed gunman — 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof — has been photographed with the flag. As families laid their loved ones to rest, the Confederate battle flag flew over the South Carolina Statehouse — drawing criticism from many who see the flag as a symbol of racism.

In a statement later in June on his plan to phase out Confederate plates in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe called the image of the flag “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful.” He also cited a Supreme Court ruling that Texas could bar the Confederate flag from its license plates.

The Virginia General Assembly had once tried to ban the flag on state license plates. Lawmakers in 1999 adopted legislation prohibiting the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ license plate design, which features the Confederate battle flag, but the group sued over the law.

Judge Kiser had ruled in 2001 to block the ban from taking effect on the grounds that it restricted freedom of speech.

“This ruling will allow Virginia to remove a symbol of oppression and injustice from public display on its license plates,” Mr. Herring said Friday. “Virginia state government does not have to and will not endorse such a divisive symbol.”

Maryland also has sought to recall license plates with Confederate flag images. There are only about 150 issued in the state.

Following the judge’s decision, Frank Earnest, past commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told The Roanoke Times that ruling would not weaken his group’s efforts.

“We’re not going to go away,” he told the paper.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles said it received 34 requests for the SCV plate between June 24 and July 23. The plates were not issued while the challenge was pending in court.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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