By Kia Shanté Breaux
© The Associated Press

January 18, 2001

A federal judge Thursday ordered Virginia to issue specialty license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag logo of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The ruling comes after nearly two years of legal wrangling over whether the state can deny a group's request for specialty tags based on the group's viewpoint.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser said the state's refusal to issue the tag violated the group's right to free speech.

"They singled out this group based on viewpoint, and that flies on the face of the First Amendment," said Art Strickland, an attorney for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

David Botkins, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Earley, said the state had not decided whether to appeal.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued Virginia in 1999 after lawmakers approved a plate but refused to allow the group's logo, which features a Confederate battle flag. Some legislators argued that the flag is racially divisive.

The state contended that it has the right to control which groups and designs are allowed because the specialty plates represent the state and what it stands for.

Brag Bowling, first lieutenant commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the group does not promote racist views and simply wants to honor its ancestors. He said the ruling was "vindication from an unconstitutional and discriminatory act."

In 1997, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that the flag could not be banned from license plates there because of free speech. A North Carolina judge ruled last year that the Sons of Confederate Veterans qualifies as a civic organization and is thus entitled to special plates in that state.

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