Flag-amendment opponents ‘excited’ about House vote

Thursday, June 24, 1999

Although she opposes efforts to grant the flag constitutional protections, Terri Schroeder cheered after learning the House approved a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to draft flag-protection laws.

The final vote tally — 305 yea, 124 nay — gave her cause to celebrate, the legislative analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union says, because it demonstrates waning support for the flag amendment.

The House approved the amendment with a 312-120 vote in 1995 and with a 310-114 vote in 1997. Opponents say that, with the latest tally, supporters lost five votes while opponents gained 10.

“I've never been so excited about a loss in my life,” Schroeder said. “They're losing votes, and they particularly are losing freshman legislators.”

But the president of the Citizens Flag Alliance, the leading organization supporting the amendment, called the difference “statistically insignificant,” noting that the measure easily garnered more than 290 votes — the minimum needed for a proposed constitutional amendment to clear the House.

“The fact of the matter is, it far exceeded the threshold set by the Founding Fathers,” Daniel Wheeler said. “I don't think support has waned whatsoever. Look at the percentages and numbers we get all of the time — 70 % of the House, 49 of the states, 85% of the American people. And pretty soon, we'll get the two-thirds of the Senate.”

Today's vote marked the third time the House has voted on the flag amendment, which reads: “Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

“Today's vote shows that more House members have come to see what a terrible mistake it would be to tamper with the Bill of Rights for the first time in its history,” said Carole Shields, president of the People for the American Way, another group opposing the amendment. “The flag amendment is an unwise and unnecessary measure that would jeopardize our fundamental freedom under the guise of protecting its most visible and cherished symbol.”

In what he described as an effort to protect free expression, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., asked the House to add a phrase to the amendment that would forbid any future flag-desecration laws that are “inconsistent” with the First Amendment. The measure failed 310-115.

Wheeler said Watt's proposal missed the sole purpose of the flag amendment: prevent the U.S. Supreme Court from striking down flag-protection laws as it did in Texas v. Johnson in 1989 and in U.S. v. Eichman in 1990.

“It's impossible to write legislation that would pass constitutional scrutiny because the very fact that you are trying to protect the flag against a point of view makes it inconsistent with the First Amendment,” he said. “I'm not going to say it was disingenuous, but I think some people are genuinely blinded by the light. I think this was a pretty weak maneuver.”

Wheeler said the real battle would be fought in the Senate, where supporters and opponents agree the amendment is one or two votes shy of passage. Even if the Senate turns down the amendment &3151; as it did in 1995 on a 63-36 vote — Wheeler promised that the flag issue would never die.

“Anyone can be assured it's not going to be last time they're going to hear about this issue,” he said.

But Shields said the CFA's effort — which has cost more than $15 million since the group's inception in May 1994 — continues to fail.

“They have warned Congress that voters will rise up to vote against anyone who opposes the amendment and have pressured candidates to sign pro-amendment pledges as part of their campaign platform,” Shields said. “Yet the CFA's threat of political retribution has never materialized.”

Kevin Goldberg, counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the vote clearly shows that there isn't an enormous pro-amendment tide.

“In the scheme of things, we're getting pretty close to that 290,” Goldberg said. “It may come into play in the next couple of years that the House may block passage of this. I wouldn't be surprised if this happened.”