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Flag Waivers Continu to Gut the Bill of Rights

by OzzyO Sunday, May. 11, 2003 at 6:16 AM

Constitutional amendment on flag desecration is back again Supporters say bill stands better chance after war with Iraq

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Constitutional amendment on flag desecration is back again

Supporters say bill stands better chance after war with Iraq



WASHINGTON -- Supporters of another drive for a constitutional amendment against flag burning say they hope a wave of patriotism inspired by the Iraqi war will push the measure toward victory.

The constitutional amendment is expected to win House approval as soon as next week for the fifth time but encounter a tougher hurdle in the Senate.

Supporters of the amendment, mostly Republicans, concede that flag burning has become rare since the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s but they say a ban is needed to protect an important American symbol from occasional desecration.

Foes of the proposed amendment argue that it would weaken the Bill of Rights by allowing federal laws banning physical desecration of the flag when such acts are political expression. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., the chief sponsor and a decorated pilot in the Vietnam War, said the timing is more favorable this year as Memorial Day approaches under threat of terrorism and U.S. troops are coming home from Iraq.

"It tends to make people want to rally around the church and the flag," Cunningham said. "These symbols are very important. Why let people desecrate them?"

Cunningham, who adopted the flag-burning issue after the late Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., retired from the House, said he wants children to know "we have certain things that are precious in our society." Flag burning "is a violent act, which perpetuates other violent acts," he said.

Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a co-sponsor of the flag amendment, said the flag must be protected because it "displays what America is all about, freedom, liberty, democracy."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., an ardent foe of the flag amendment, said it would be "terrible" to amend the Bill of Rights for the first time and restrict the First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

"Do you see an epidemic of flag burning?" Nadler said "One or two idiots do it a year and the country survives."

Nadler noted that official government flag manuals recommend that worn-out U.S. flags be burned.

"If you burn the flag while you're standing there saying nice things, that's fine, but if you burn it saying something in opposition to your country, that's wrong?" Nadler said. "What they mean by desecration is defacement of the flag in connection with unpopular speech."

Cunningham insists the measure doesn't trample free speech rights. "There are 10,000 ways you can express yourself. You don't need to desecrate the flag."

The proposed constitutional amendment would overturn the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that laws banning desecration of the U.S. flag were unconstitutional infringements on free speech.

The flag amendment says: "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

Polls have repeatedly shown that 80 percent of Americans favor the amendment. All 50 states have approved measures expressing support for a flag amendment, virtually assuring ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures if Congress ever sends the measure to them.

For that to happen, both the House and Senate have to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority. The House overwhelmingly approved the flag amendment in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001. The Senate fell three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in 1995. In 1998, Democratic Senate leaders didn't take it up. It fell four votes short in 2000, and Democrats refused to bring it up in the last Congress.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the flag amendment, said supporters "are very close" to mustering the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate.

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