Judge: Virginia can ban future Confederate license plates

DANVILLE, Va. (AP) -- Virginia can ban the Confederate flag from specialty license plates the state issues in the future, a federal judge said Friday, but no decision has been announced on whether existing tags can be revoked.

U.S. District Jackson L. Kiser said after a hearing Friday that he will set aside a 2001 injunction that allowed the image of the Confederate flag on vanity plates honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A written opinion to be filed later will address whether the ruling covers the approximately 1,600 Confederate plates already issued.

The Virginia attorney general's office asked Kiser to dissolve the injunction after Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in June that he would move to have the plates phased out.

"This ruling will allow Virginia to remove a symbol of oppression and injustice from public display on its license plates," Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement. "Virginia state government does not have to and will not endorse such a divisive symbol."

The SCV opposed the move. Frank Earnest, past commander of the Southern heritage group's Virginia division, said Kiser's ruling will not weaken the organization's resolve.

"We're not going to go away," he told the Danville Register and Bee (http://bit.ly/1VRwJUY ).

The hearing in U.S. District Court in Danville came as the mill city of 43,000 grapples with the enduring symbols of the Confederacy, a debate sparked across the South by the mass killings of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June. The white man charged in the deaths has been photographed with the flag.

In a statement later that month on his plan to phase out Confederate plates in Virginia, 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.

In 1999, the General Assembly authorized the SCV plates but prohibited any logo on the design. The group sued, and a federal judge sided with the SCV. The decision was upheld by a federal appeals court.

Bragdon Bowling is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and was commander of the Virginia division when it went to court to get the flag on the plate. He said McAuliffe's action to banish the flag was a "knee-jerk" reaction.

"What the governor has done is going to greatly increase the membership of the Sons of Confederate Veterans," Bowling said Thursday. "That's what happens when you try to suppress a powerful symbol."

The group insists the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, not hate.

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.

Danville has endured weeks of discord over the flying of a Confederate flag on the lawn of the mansion where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet encamped in April 1865 until Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

The Sutherlin Mansion is now home to an arts and history museum.

The Danville newspaper has reported that the City Council will banish all flags from city property other than the U.S., Virginia and Danville flag.