Committee schedules hearing to revisit flag amendment

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Although its members sent the measure to the full Senate last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a July 8 hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Congress to ban flag desecration.

Opponents of the amendment questioned the need for another hearing—a Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution held one last March—since committee members approved the measure last month. Some said last week's Wisconsin Supreme Court decision striking down a 79-year-old flag-desecration law may have sparked the hearing.

Supporters said the hearing is an informational one, designed to help the full Senate understand the issues surrounding the amendment.

Amendment supporters are believed to be only a few votes shy of the 67 required to pass the proposal, which already has been approved by the House. If the Senate approves the amendment, it then goes to the states for ratification.

Forty-nine state legislatures, far more than the three-fourths required to amend the Constitution, have passed resolutions indicating they would ratify the flag-desecration amendment.

Jeanne Lopatto, the Judiciary Committee's spokeswoman, said the hearing will begin at 9 a.m. at the Dirksen Office Building. She said scheduling committee hearings on a measure that has already been handed to the full Senate isn't common.

“But it's happened before,” Lopatto said. “It's certainly very useful for the committee and members of the Senate to have an opportunity to revisit the arguments again and learn more.”

Lopatto declined comment on whether it was a tactical attempt to bolster support and evidence in favor of the amendment. Aides in the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the committee chairman and the amendment's lead sponsor, referred questions back to Lopatto.

Lopatto said the witness list hasn't been confirmed. According to aides for committee member Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the tentative list of witnesses supporting the amendment includes:

  • Richard Parker, a Harvard University professor who testified on the issue before the House last year;
  • Sean Stephenson, a 19-year-old political science major who won an inspiration award from Boys Nation in 1996 for overcoming birth defects;
  • Col. George “Bud” Day, a former prisoner-of-war and Medal of Honor winner;
  • Wilbun Red Tomahawk, vice chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and member of the Citizens Flag Alliance;
  • Gary Wetzel, a Medal of Honor winner from Wisconsin; and
  • John Schneider, actor/songwriter known for Dukes of Hazzard.

The committee hasn't named any witnesses to testify against the amendment. A spokesman for Feingold, who opposes the amendment, said the committee will likely invite two or three people to speak against the measure.

Larry Ottinger of the People for the American Way, a civil liberties group opposing the amendment, said the imbalance of amendment supporters and opponents shows the hearing “isn't open and democratic.” But he said he couldn't tell whether the timing of the hearing was a strategic one or not.

“It's hard to say whether they feel they don't have enough support yet and need to drum up attention,” Ottinger said.

Ottinger and other amendment opponents said the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to overturn a state flag-desecration law might have sparked the hearing. The court's ruling involved the case of Matthew Janssen, who defecated on a flag and left it on the steps of a golf course clubhouse in 1996.

Meanwhile, opponents and supporters of the amendment plan to use the Fourth of July recess to target North Dakota because its two senators are considered key votes.

Although Democrats Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan opposed the amendment when it last reached the Senate in 1995, both say they are undecided this time.

Dorgan said his staff is studying the amendment to make sure it wouldn't have any unintended consequences for other First Amendment issues.

“It's not a case of being indecisive,” he said. “I just want to make sure that before one would be supportive of amending the Constitution that it wouldn't do anything more than make constitutional the statutory provision I've already voted for.”

Conrad said he would rather enact a law than support a constitutional amendment. But he said he, too, is waiting.

“If a statute will do the job … then I strongly prefer that alternative,” he said. “That's the question. We're trying to get conclusive answers.”

To persuade Conrad, Dorgan and other senators, People for the American Way this week began airing a Norman Lear-produced television ad on all North Dakota stations and in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.

The ad features Jim Warner, a Vietnam prisoner-of-war who tells of being confronted by his captors with photographs of U.S. protesters burning the American flag.

“Those pictures prove that we're right and that our country is strong,” Warner recalls telling his captors. “We're not afraid of freedom—even when we disagree.”

Veterans groups, too, have been lobbying Dorgan and Conrad. The American Legion is encouraging its members to lobby the senators at July 4 parades in Bismarck and Mandan. The Legion also invited the senators to a meeting in Medora where the keynote speaker will be Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady of the Citizens Flag Alliance.

“We feel strongly that we can get their support,” said David Schmidt, the Legion's North Dakota adjutant.

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.