By Bill Bartel

A federal judge in Danville said Friday that Virginia can stop issuing license plates with Confederate battle flag emblems. But he left unclear what to do about 1,691 motorists who have the specialty tags.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser said during a hearing Friday he is ending an injunction he issued 14 years ago that blocked the state from banning the flag symbol on tags. The emblem had been requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In 1999, state legislators had banned the flag's use on plates, but Kiser's 2001 injunction blocked the law.

Kiser did not rule Friday on whether the plates already issued with the rebel flag must be replaced. Attorney General Mark Herring's office said the judge is expected to address that issue in his written order, which will come later.

Herring's staff successfully argued that Kiser should dissolve the court order after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that license plates are a government function and not individual free speech protected by the Constitution.

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

Lawyers for the Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that the Texas ruling should not be applied to Virginia.

Suffolk attorney Fred Taylor, who represented the group, said he was disappointed with the decision. He said the group would wait for Kiser's written order before deciding whether to appeal to a higher court.

The ban applies only to the battle flag. The state expects to continue to offer a specialty tag requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"We are reaching out to the SCV today to work on a redesign of the plate that does not include the Confederate battle flag," Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Brandy Brubaker said in an email. "The process of redesigning and manufacturing new plates takes time; however, we will work as quickly as possible."

The agency has received 43 new applications for SCV plates since June 24 that won't be issued until the redesign, she said.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who learned about the court's ruling during a Portsmouth visit, praised the decision.

"I want to thank the judiciary for that," he said. "It was the right thing to do for Virginia, and now we can move ahead."

McAuliffe had said in June he wanted to stop issuing plates with the battle flag because it was "hurtful to too many of our people."

His remarks were in reaction to the June 17 fatal shootings of nine black people in a Charleston, S.C., church. The suspect, Dylann Roof, had posted on social media photos of himself with the Confederate battle flag and had issued racist statements.

Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh contributed to this report.

(c)2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)