Congress should practice true patriotism and reject flag-burning amendment

Friday, May 15, 1998

A group of Americans gathers on Long Island to protest the government.

Tempers flare. Someone fashions an effigy of a prominent politician and others wrap the dummy in the nation’s flag. Moments later, the effigy — and the flag — are set ablaze.

Another one of those flag-burning incidents that Congress seems determined to outlaw?

Was this an act of disrespect to all this country stands for?

Just the opposite.

The men were among America’s founders, patriots to the core. One day in 1776, they created an effigy of King George III, wrapped it in the British flag and burned it.

In burning the Union Jack, those Americans were making a political statement. England was their mother country, but they were declaring their independence by “killing the king” and destroying the flag that symbolized Britain. More than two centuries later, scholars still write about the political protests that helped pave the way to a new nation.

Yet it seems that Americans today know too little of their history. The same vehicle for political protest that was used in the past, the burning of the nation’s flag, would be denied Americans of the future under a constitutional amendment pending in Congress.

“Pending” is perhaps too mild a word. This proposed amendment is moving rapidly through the Senate and at this writing is just a handful of votes short of approval. It already has been approved overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives. Forty-nine states have passed resolutions indicating they will ratify the amendment if it is passed by the Senate.

It’s easy to understand why the bill is popular with politicians. Fervent supporters of the bill include veterans groups who express a sincere and passionate belief that we should take whatever steps are necessary to protect the integrity of the U.S. flag. But the proposed amendment has an internal conflict. It mandates respect for the flag while undercutting the constitutional rights it symbolizes.

The flag symbolizes the United States. The Constitution is the United States.

The history of the proposed amendment is revealing. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was a protected act of political protest. The court made clear that flag burning is a symbolic act of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

There is no appeal beyond the Supreme Court. So those opposed to flag burning decided to rewrite the Constitution. For the first time in the history of this country, the nation is considering an amendment that would take away a constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech.

Most Americans say they oppose flag burning, but a Freedom Forum survey last fall indicates that fewer than half favor amending the Constitution to prevent such protest.

How prevalent is flag-burning these days? How significant a problem is it that we must tamper with our Constitution?

In truth, flag burning is a rare event in this country. Few of us have seen the act occur in our presence. It is not a chronic or pressing problem.

There is no questioning the patriotism of the men and women who fought for this nation and who now want to defend the flag from violation. But there are other ways to express patriotism

It is patriotic to take a stand in protecting the sanctity of the Constitution, even as political momentum builds in the opposite direction.

It is patriotic to vote your conscience in Congress, undeterred by the possibility that an opponent one day may challenge your love of country.

And it is patriotic to stand up for the rights of free speech and political expression, no matter how distasteful you may find the act of burning a flag.