With the Confederate flag under new scrutiny in states across the South, a spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday that North Carolina should stop issuing license plates with the Confederate battle flag on them.
“The time is right to change this policy due to the recent Supreme Court ruling and the tragedy in Charleston,” said Josh Ellis, the governor’s communications director.
On Monday, just days after the racially motivated slayings of nine parishioners in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said the flag should be removed from the State House grounds in Columbia.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that Texas did not violate the First Amendment by declining to allow specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag, arguing that the plates represent speech by the government.
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McCrory will ask North Carolina’s legislature to halt the issue of plates for members of Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ellis said.
Initial response from legislators was positive Tuesday.
“I think most people understand that certain symbols can promote certain types of behavior,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “I hate that it took a tragedy to do it. It’s amazing that the Emanuel Nine had to be on the altar to be sacrificed for this to happen.”
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said he agrees with the governor.
“I think the Confederate flag has no place on the North Carolina license plate,” Jeter said. “I’m hopeful we can find a way to get rid of it.”
Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the state Senate, tossed the issue back to McCrory.
“The Division of Motor Vehicles is responsible for approving the design of specialty license plates,” said Berger’s spokeswoman, Shelly Carver. “The issue raised by the governor is one that can be addressed by the executive branch.”
2,064 flag plates active
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national organization with a North Carolina chapter, pay $10 per year for the license plates, in addition to the standard car registration renewal fees. The plates feature the red flag crossed with a blue “X” and a license number that ends with “CV.”
“We have 2,064 of the plates currently active,” DMV spokesman Steve Abbott said.
North Carolina began issuing the plates in 1998, but only after losing a court fight with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The organization won the right to have a special plate for its members, under a state law that allows plates for nationally recognized civic clubs.
The N.C. Court of Appeals found in the group’s favor. But last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Texas case appears to have cleared the way for North Carolina to stop issuing the plates. Eight other states also issue license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the House speaker pro tem, said he wasn’t aware the state offered Confederate flag plates.
“I would never have voted for it to start with, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Stam said.
Rep. Larry Hall of Durham, the House Democratic Party leader, said gun legislation was more important than the flag issue.
“I agree with eliminating the Confederate flag on state license plates,” Hall said in a news release. “But the priority must be gun safety and the requirement of background checks to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who should not have guns and who do damage to our community.”
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, also backed the governor’s call.
“I’m glad that he’s doing this, and the legislature should have never had license plates that evoke controversy – if it’s something like the Confederate flag or license plates that are meant to shame people,” Cotham said, referring to a “Choose Life” anti-abortion plate that sparked debate a few years ago.
‘More of a heritage thing’
Rep. Ken Waddell, a Columbus County Democrat, wasn’t ready to agree with McCrory.
“I don’t think those folks mean it in a degrading way,” Waddell said. “It’s more of a heritage thing. It shouldn’t be something that’s detrimental to people.”
Dan Bolick, who heads the state chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In a statement posted Monday on the group’s Facebook page and attributed to him, Bolick expressed condolences to survivors of the Charleston shooting victims, deplored the actions of their killer and rejected arguments for removing Confederate flags from public display.
“The idea that if the Confederate flag is removed from public view then this type of crime will cease is an insult to Southerners and all Americans,” Bolick wrote.
Taylor Knopf, Jim Morrill, Josh Shaffer and Colin Campbell contributed to this report.