Bill opposing flag burning is debated in U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — That old “Don’t tread on me” feeling is back on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are hoping the 105th Congress will pass a flag-burning amendment after years of failures.
“This issue strikes at the very heart of what is wrong in America today,” said amendment supporter Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., to the House Judiciary Committee panel on the Constitution. “As a nation, we are losing the ability to declare what is good and what is bad. … If a government cannot declare what is right and wrong, how can it expect its citizenry to do the same?”
And it’s not just a Republican concern. Democratic Rep. William O. Lipinski of Illinois argued: “The American flag is the one symbol that unites our national community. … We send the wrong message to this nation’s youth if we allow our greatest symbol to be desecrated with impunity.”
Opponents contended the constitutional amendment — which would let Congress ban flag desecration and set penalties — would be an unwarranted limitation of free-speech rights, especially given that such desecrations occur so rarely.
“I cannot imagine punishing three or four individuals is worth threatening the Constitution of the United States,” said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., said, “Dictators crack down on people who burn their flags, not democracies.” And he said that while some say “Men have died for the flag,” they were really dying for what it represents.
“We didn’t enter World War II because the Japanese sunk a bunch of flags,” he said.
Supporters cited polls stating 80 percent of the American people support such an amendment.
But opponent Lawrence Korb, a 23-year Navy veteran of Vietnam and former Reagan Defense Department official, cited a poll indicating Americans rejected it 52 percent to 38 percent when told it would be “the first amendment in our history to restrict our First Amendment freedoms.”
The Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that burning the U.S. flag is protected free speech, invalidating statutes in 48 states. Congress then passed a law protecting the flag, but the Supreme Court found that unconstitutional in 1990. Then Congress tried but failed to get two-thirds majority votes for a constitutional amendment.
In 1995, the House passed 312-120 an amendment to let Congress and the states establish laws protecting the flag, but the Senate fell short, 63-36.
Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., the amendment’s chief sponsor, said he hopes new language — letting only Congress make such laws — will lure votes from some lawmakers concerned that the previous version would have led to conflicting, diverse laws.
Meanwhile, amendment supporters are pushing senators to vote for it regardless of their own views so the people can decide through their state legislatures, he said.
Ratification requires approval by three-quarters of the states.
Solomon predicted it would be “the fastest amendment ever ratified,” taking at most two years.