Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory wants to halt new North Carolina license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag, but he and legislative leaders differ on who has the authority to make that happen.
North Carolina joined a line of Southern states on Tuesday where officials distanced themselves from the Confederate flag in the wake of last week's shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people attending a Bible study meeting. A white supremacist who posted pictures of himself online with the flag and guns has been charged in the shooting spree.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., while Mississippi lawmakers have suggested that the battle flag image be removed from that state's flag.
Although North Carolina flies the official flag of the Confederacy at the State Capitol three times a year – once in January for Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday and twice in May for Confederate memorial day and Confederate flag day – McCrory said he is more concerned with the battle flag image on state license plates.
"The national flag is not the flag that has been used in such an offensive way in our nation and in our state, and I think there is a clear distinction between the two. We still have to preserve the history of our country and of our state," McCrory said Wednesday.
"That’s clearly the flag that has been hijacked by people that are misusing that symbolism to set the wrong tone for our nation and for North Carolina," he said of the battle flag. "I think flags in the proper historical context are proper, but the battle flag on the North Carolina license plate, I think, needs to be disbanded."
The state Division of Motor Vehicles said it has issued 2,064 Confederate flag plates to members of the North Carolina chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans.
McCrory said he doesn't want to the DMV to recall those plates, only to stop issuing new ones. He said that would require the General Assembly to rewrite a state law, citing a 1998 North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling that first opened the door to the flag plates.
After the DMV rejected issuing plates for Sons of Confederate Veterans members, the group sued the state, and a divided three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled that the organization could be considered a civic group entitled to a specialty plate.
State law requires that plates for civic groups include the group's name and insignia, which is the Confederate battle flag for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"I’d do it today, but it's my understanding there is a clear statute which does not give me that authority," McCrory said of halting production of the flag tags.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said McCrory's administration does have the power to remove the flag from state license plates.
"The legislature was not involved in the authorization of the tag to begin with," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "Since the plate was authorized through the administrative process, if there are problems with the plate, if folks feel that something needs to be changed, then that should be done through the administrative process as well."
The 1998 court case dealt only with whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans could be considered a civic group, Berger said, not whether the state had to issue specialty plates for members.
"If a civic organization has a symbol or an emblem that is offensive to the majority of the folks, I don’t think the state has the obligation to put that on a tag," he said. "There is some level of executive administrative discretion involved in the issuance of those plates and what goes on those plates."
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case that states can choose not to issue such plates. In the 5-4 decision, the justices said tags are state property, not the equivalent of bumper stickers, so denying specific designs doesn't violate free-speech rights.
But North Carolina Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, said the General Assembly should just clarify state statutes to match the Supreme Court ruling, so there would be no questions about future Confederate flag tags in the state and the state could move on to more substantive issues.
"We’re at the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – 150 years ago that war ended," Blue said. "So, 150 years later, we ought to be debating the real issues around this place, not still having to debate what someone’s tradition or heritage or all of that is.
"We ought to relegate (the Confederate battle flag), as well as other insignia from the Civil War era, to the museums and let people study them that way," he continued. "We do that with respect to our other wars and other things that we’ve been involved in. That would be the appropriate way to deal with it."