Flag-amendment proposal returns for another round

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The perennial effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect the U.S. flag from desecration made a quiet entry into the 107th Congress yesterday, a marked departure from past introductions that have included baseball legends, pop stars and decorated war heroes.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and John Murtha, R-Pa., introduced the flag amendment in their respective chambers. Each one exclaimed the urgency for Congress to approve the measure this session.

“The American flag is a national treasure,” Cunningham said. “It is the ultimate symbol of freedom, equal opportunity and religious tolerance. Amending our Constitution to protect the flag is a necessity.”

The latest resolution marks the proposed amendment's sixth appearance before Congress since 1989. Because the measure is a constitutional amendment, it must be approved in both chambers by a two-thirds majority vote and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Although the House consistently approves the amendment, the Senate has killed the measure each time.

Last year, the House approved the amendment with a 305-124 vote, while the Senate voted it down by a vote of 63-37, four shy of the required two-thirds majority. To date, 49 state legislatures have passed nonbinding resolutions urging Congress to send the amendment their way for ratification.

In the past, amendment sponsors enlisted the aid of celebrities like singer Pat Boone and former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Tommy Lasorda to announce the amendment's introduction. But this time there was little fanfare.

Hatch, in introducing the amendment before the Senate, urged Congress to heed public demand, particularly of veterans with the American Legion who had descended upon the Capitol this week to lobby for the amendment and other issues.

“It is time for us to make unequivocally clear that certain behavior in this country is and should be recognized as wrong and punishable by law,” Hatch said.

Some say support for the amendment faltered noticeably last session, particularly when Sen. Robert Byrd, an influential Democrat from West Virginia, voted against the amendment after years of supporting it.

But the Citizens Flag Alliance, the American Legion offshoot leading the effort to pass the amendment, shows a tally of 64 senators in support, a gain of one over last year's vote.

Free-speech advocates aren't worried, saying they stand ready to defeat the amendment once again.

“We think the numbers bear our side out,” said Kevin Goldberg of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “We welcome another chance to show people that the First Amendment is still alive and still strong.”

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and People for the American Way contend that an amendment to protect the flag would strip away core First Amendment principles such as the right of assembly and the right to free speech.

But amendment supporters claim that defiling the flag stands outside the forum of legitimate speech because of the special place the flag holds in the heart of Americans. They say Congress must amend the Constitution to block courts from striking down laws forbidding desecration of the flag.

“I believe that the societal interest in preserving the symbolic value of the flag outweighs the interest of an individual who chooses to physically desecrate the flag,” Cleland said. “The flag unites Americans as no symbol can. If the American flag is not sacred, what in the world is?”

Ret. Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, chairman of the Citizens Flag Alliance, agrees that the First Amendment stands front and center in the debate. But he said the act of flag desecration threatens the rights of Americans.

“It is not the flag-burners who are the danger,” Brady said. “The danger is from those who call flag burning 'speech.' They demean the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and threaten the very foundation of our Constitution as defined by our founders.”

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