- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday that he’s moving to have the Confederate flag banished from state license plates in the wake of a massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Speaking in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Democrat McAuliffe commended Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in South Carolina.

McAuliffe said Virginia, where no Confederate Flag flies at its Capitol but the image is on one of its vanity license plates, should follow South Carolina’s lead.

“Even its display on state-issued license tags, in my view, is unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people,” McAuliffe said.

The governor’s announcement was met by a standing ovation at his news conference.

In Virginia, where vanity plates are inexpensive and popular, one pays homage to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group’s logo, which features the Confederate flag, is on the plate. State lawmakers passed a law in 1999 allowing for a vanity plate recognizing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but the measure specifically prohibited the display of the Confederate Flag. But that portion was overturned on First Amendment grounds by the courts.

However, last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that the state could limit the content of license plates because they are state property and not the equivalent of bumper stickers. The Sons of Confederate Veterans had sought a Texas plate similar to the one in Virginia bearing its logo with the battle flag. A state board rejected it over concerns that the license plate would offend many Texans, and the Supreme Court upheld that refusal.

On Tuesday, McAuliffe cited that high court ruling in his announcement on the Virginia plate, asking Attorney General Mark Herring to take steps to reverse the 2002 federal court decision that said Virginia could not block the group from displaying its logo on state license plates.

The governor also said he’s asked his secretary of transportation to come up with a plan to replace the current plates depicting the flag as soon as possible.

A spokeswoman for the DMV said there are about 1,600 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates issued in Virginia.

McAuliffe said he does not know whether the plan will ask the current holders to turn them in.

Tony Griffin, an officer with the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his group would issue a statement late Tuesday. Speaking for himself as someone who has a vanity plate with the Confederate flag on it, Griffin said, he called McAuliffe’s decision a “kneejerk reaction” to the Charleston shootings.

“As a southerner I’m proud of that flag,” Griffin said. “Governor McAuliffe is not even a Virginian or a southerner and he has no idea what that means, and thankfully he can’t be re-elected.”

McAuliffe, who is barred by state law from seeking a consecutive term in office, has made an effort to reach out to black voters during his time as governor. He’s made restoring rights to felons a top priority, he occasionally spends his Sundays barnstorming black churches, and he will unveil a portrait of civil-rights leader Oliver Hill at the Executive Mansion later Tuesday.

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