House panel backs flag amendment

Thursday, June 21, 2001

With little fanfare or debate, the House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the flag amendment, a measure designed to empower Congress to pass laws forbidding flag desecration.

The resolution, H.J.R.. 36, passed on a 15-11 vote and now goes to the full House. A vote is expected next week, marking the fourth time the House has considered such a constitutional amendment.

“We anticipate it will again sail through the House and clear the floor with much more than the 290 votes required for it to pass,” said Marty Justis, president of the Citizens Flag Alliance, the leading group in support of the amendment.

Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and John Murtha, R-Pa., quietly introduced the flag amendment to the 107th Congress three months ago. The amendment proposed in H.J.R. 36 reads: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

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 has consistently approved the amendment, the Senate has killed the measure every time.

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

Supporters say they will succeed this time, even after support faltered noticeably last session. Sen. Robert Byrd, an influential Democrat from West Virginia, voted against the amendment after years of supporting it.

Although the Citizens Flag Alliance claims to have secured at least one new vote in the Senate this time around, the leadership change in the Senate following the defection of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords from the GOP threatens the amendment's success. The result is a restructured Senate Judiciary Committee that might reject the amendment and keep it from coming to a vote by the full Senate.

“We recognize that with the change of leadership in the Senate, we have a special problem in the Senate,” Justis said in a telephone interview. “But we hope that Sen. (Tom) Daschle will pick up the cause there.”

That appears unlikely since Daschle, D-S.D., the new Senate Majority leader, voted against the amendment in previous sessions.

After the House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday, committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., praised his colleagues for approving H.J.R. 36 without any amendments. He called the flag amendment an appropriate way to recognize the flag's “unique role as the symbol of the ideals upon which America was founded.”

“It is a national asset that helps to preserve our unity, our freedom and our liberty as Americans,” Sensenbrenner said. “This symbol represents our country's many hard-won freedoms, paid for with the lives of thousands of young men and women.”

But Gregory Norjeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., office, said the symbol doesn't stand before freedom.

“The amendment to 'protect' the flag would irreparably harm the freedoms for which it stands. Our nation is a world power and reservoir of liberty because it is willing to abide by the most potent — some would say noxious — protest. Our strength's not in the physical integrity of the flag but in our collective tolerance of dissent.”

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