The Maryland attorney general's office says legislative action isn't necessary for the state to recall license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag.
"It is my view that there is no constitutional or statutory obstacle to exclusion of the Confederate battle flag or recall of existing plates," Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote in an opinion addressed to Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. David Moon.
The two Montgomery County Democrats asked the office June 22 to issue an opinion on whether the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is able to recall the plates under current law.
The Supreme Court held last month in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans that states can exclude the Confederate flag from government specialty license plate programs, contradicting a case in Maryland from the 1990s where the Sons of Confederate Veterans successfully argued that the flag is protected by the First Amendment.
"The Supreme Court made clear that a specialty license plate program is government speech," Raskin said. "Given that it is government speech, we should dissociate ourselves from the Confederate flag as quickly as possible. The Confederate emblem was the banner of disunion and civil war ... it does not make sense for the states which form the U.S. to be advertising a symbol of treason and violent rebellion against the government."
Controversy over the flag erupted nationwide after nine black men and women were killed in an African-American church in Charleston, S.C. The flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds last Friday.
Items with the flag's image have been removed from gift shops in national parks. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is also reviewing Confederate monuments in the city. Local leaders have also pushed to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore.
"We are having a surge of momentum on the issue and a lot of us felt that waiting six months until the next legislative session would take the wind out of our sails," Moon said. "Now that [the attorney general's office] indicated that we don't, we can move a lot more quickly to correcting this injustice."
The opinion pointed out, however, that plates issued prior to Oct. 18, 1999 are subject to an injunction preventing them from being recalled. Regulations permitting the MVA to refuse to issue a plate that communicates a message with "unacceptable" material went into place on that date.
The opinion recommends filing a motion to vacate that order and indicates that steps are being taken to do so.
"As Governor Hogan has said repeatedly, the Confederate Flag is a divisive symbol and he is against its use on Maryland license plates," said Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, a spokeswoman for the governor. "Currently, the issuance of these license plates has been suspended by the Motor Vehicle Administration pending further review of the attorney general's opinion."
Raskin said he hopes Hogan "is moving to vacate that order as quickly as possible and that the Motor Vehicle Administration will recall the Confederate plates and retire that emblem permanently in our state."
More than 400 vehicles and 61 motorcycles have been issued Confederate plates in Maryland and 151 vehicles and 27 motorcycles still bore them as of March according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.