(Photo: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles)

(Photo: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles)

The sons of Confederate veterans have another battle on their hands if they intend to fight a Virginia plan to remove specialty license plates that depict the Confederate battle flag.


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The banner was the battle flag of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. The defeat of the Confederate States brought an end to slavery in the United States.

The Virginia specialty plates honor the Sons of the Confederate Veterans (SCV), an organization that says it is the oldest hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers. Drivers must be members of the group to have the distinctive plates on their vehicle. Of the 8.2 million active license plates in Virginia, fewer than 1,700 are the specialty Confederate flag plates.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for the removal of the plates shortly after nine people were killed at a black church in South Carolina. A white man charged in the killings posed with a Confederate flag in online photos before the shooting. In a statement, McAuliffe said displaying the flag on state-issued license tags was “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people.”

Virginia was forced to issue the plates in 2002, after a court judge decided banning the flag from the license plate curtailed drivers’ right to free speech.

However, in June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court — the highest court in the land — ruled that the state of Texas did not have to approve a similar specialty plate because license plates reflect the state’s speech, rather than the driver’s.

The design of a proposed "Sons of the Confederacy" Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20, 2015.

The design of a proposed “Sons of the Confederacy” Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20, 2015.

Reacting to the high court ruling, Charles Kelly Barrow, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called it a sad day for the First Amendment.

“It is unfortunate that the Court has not extended the same sense of inclusion, diversity and tolerance to the estimated 70 million Americans of Confederate descent that is the right of every other American,” Barrow wrote in a statement. “The idea of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance apparently does not apply under law to those of us whose heritage is unpopular in some quarters.”

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Virginia judge dissolved his 2001 order saying it was no longer good law.

“When the Supreme Court speaks, district courts must listen,” U.S. District Judge Jackson L. Kiser wrote in his order. “Specialty license plates represent the government’s speech, and the Commonwealth may choose, consonant with the First Amendment, the message it wishes to convey on those plates.”

With that decision, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the state agency that issues license plates, will begin the administrative process of recalling and replacing the distinctive Sons of Confederate Veterans plates with a new design that complies with Virginia law.

Confederate soldiers in Georgia, April 1861. (Library of Congress)

Confederate soldiers in Georgia, April 1861. (Library of Congress)

In the next few months, people who currently have the plates will be sent a new set of plates in the mail and will have 30 days to put them on their vehicle.

Drivers will also be asked to send their old plates in for recycling. And it they don’t return the old plates, which are likely to become keepsakes?

“The main concern is that we don’t want people driving on the roads with cancelled, inactive license plates,” said DMV spokeswoman Brandy Brubaker. “So within that 30-day time period they need to affix them [the new plates] to the vehicle. Driving without a license plate is a violation of Virginia law so that’s the most important part.”

There’s no word on what the new design will look like. The Virginia DMV plans to work with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to come up with an acceptable replacement. Brubaker doesn’t know what design will ultimately appear on the new plates, but she knows what won’t.

“It won’t have the Confederate battle flag on it,” she said. “Obviously designing and manufacturing new plates takes time, but we want to get this done as quickly as we can.”