By Travis Fain
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday that the state will move "quickly" to erase the Confederate flag from state license plates, and to reclaim existing plates with the controversial emblem.
The announcement follows last week's killings at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said states can restrict license plates because they qualify as state speech.
The issue is front-and-center in southern states right now. North Carolina's governor said Tuesday he'll ask the state legislature to remove the emblem from plates there, as did Tennessee's. Georgia's governor initially re-affirmed support for his state's plates Tuesday, but said later in the day he'd support a redesign, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesman said the governor's office is working with the state's department of motor vehicles and the attorney general to change plates there.
Virginia's change won't require legislative action, McAuliffe said. The General Assembly created specialty plates for members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1999, but specifically banned any "logo or emblem of any description" from the design. A subsequent federal court decision, on 1st Amendment grounds, forced the state to add the flag.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that precedent last week on a case out of Texas. McAuliffe said he'll have Attorney General Mark Herring petition the court now to remove the emblem from Virginia plates.
He didn't give a time table, but said he wants it done as soon as possible.
"It's a very simple procedure," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe also said he has asked his transportation secretary to come up with a plan to replace existing plates. The state will still produce Sons of Confederate Veterans plates, just without the flag. As of May 31, there were 1,594 active Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
"We have the right to remove the Confederate flag," McAuliffe said. "It's the right thing to do. Let us come together. Let us work together. ... We just don't need divisive symbols out there."
The governor's announcement was greeted with applause from a group assembled in Richmond for a separate announcement dealing with the restoration of voting rights for former felons. A number of state politicians, including Attorney General Mark Herring, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, put out statements of support.
"The use of the flag by public bodies is integrally connected to celebration of the cause of the Confederacy, which is inimical to American values," Kaine, D-VA, said in his statement.
The Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will release a statement on the decision later today, according to Tony Griffin, the group's 1st Lt. Commander.
Virginia Speaker of the House William Howell called the governor's decision "appropriate" in light of the Supreme Court's ruling.
"The legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1999 was clear that the emblem should not be part of the plate design," Howell said in his statement. "I still think that is the case."
In the wake of the Charleston shooting, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders have called for the Confederate flag to come down from a memorial outside the state Capitol there. Walmart, Amazon other major retailers have said they will no longer sell items with the emblem.
McAuliffe said repeatedly Tuesday that Virginia doesn't need any "divisive symbols," and he pitched his decision at least partly as an economic one, saying the state must be open to all. He also said he doesn't plan to target other uses of the flag, or statues of Confederate or segregation-era leaders on state grounds.
There is, for example, a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the state Capitol, in the room where he received his command.
McAuliffe also said he won't target the large Confederate flag flying along Interstate 95 north of Fredericksburg. It sits on private property, and is visible from the Interstate.
"I'm not going after private landowners and private businesses," the governor said.
That flag was put up by a group called The Virginia Flaggers. The group put out a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying it's McAuliffe who is being divisive.
"There have been no reported incidents of anyone being harmed by the license plates, or any disturbances caused by their use," Group leader Grayson Jennings said in an email. "Sadly, that is likely to change almost immediately with Governor McAuliffe's decision to stir up this controversy ... which will serve to divide the Commonwealth, and create strife and dissension where none existed."
Jennings also said that, since Haley's announcement, calls have been "pouring in" and the group is preparing for an expected "huge demand for flag installations in the coming days, weeks, and months."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(c)2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)