Features

Blaze of Old Glory

Politics | Showdown nears over how best to preserve the flag

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

When Beverly Crissman reported for work at the American Legion Post in Sturgis, Mich., on June 13-the day before Flag Day-she noticed something odd: Two American flags usually flying out front were missing. Later that morning, a co-worker discovered the charred remains of the flags on the east side of the building. The banners had been torn down and burned the night before.

Marty Justis of the national office of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, told WORLD that though the Michigan incident isn't common, it is emblematic of the need to protect the American flag. The Legion is one of dozens of groups lobbying Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning the desecration of the U.S. flag, a measure that the House approved on June 22 and that the Senate plans to consider after its July 4 recess.

Congress has voted on a flag-desecration amendment six times since 1989, the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning the practice. The measure has passed the House each time, but has always died in the Senate. Amendment supporters believe the tide could turn their way this year, citing an expanded Republican Senate majority and the support of at least five Democratic co-sponsors.

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Liberal groups like the ACLU and People for the American Way are using their weight to oppose the amendment, but opposition isn't coming only from the left. Some conservatives say the amendment is unnecessary and could even be harmful.

Jesse Benton of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the nation's oldest conservative lobbying organization, said the ACU is sympathetic toward amendment supporters: "We think burning the flag is a bad thing." But the ACU does not support the amendment, Mr. Benton says, because the measure is unnecessary given the rarity of reported flag-desecration instances. The Citizens Flag Alliance-an outgrowth of the American Legion and one of the leading proponents of the amendment-has reported five such incidents in the past year.

Roger Pilon, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies

at the Cato Institute, agrees the amendment is unnecessary, but is even more concerned that "this amendment would amend the First Amendment." Mr. Pilon argues that while he does not defend flag desecration, the fundamental principle of free speech is at stake. "The right to free speech isn't a right to enjoy only popular speech," he said. "In fact, it's especially the right to enjoy unpopular speech."

The American Legion's Mr. Justis isn't swayed by his critics. On the charge that the amendment would harm the right to free speech, he said: "I don't think any veteran would say they fought overseas so that the flag could be burned on the streets of America." On the charge that flag desecration is relatively rare and the amendment is unnecessary, Mr. Justis says it's not about the number of incidents: "If it's wrong to burn a thousand flags, it's wrong to burn one flag."

If the legislation passes the Senate, it will head to the states for ratification. Though some political analysts think the amendment would breeze through the ratification process, Mr. Pilon isn't so sure. "It would only take 13 states to block the amendment," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that happened."

Public sentiment regarding the amendment is difficult to gauge. The American Legion released a study on June 20 that said 75 percent of Americans support a flag-desecration amendment. The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center released a study one week earlier that said 63 percent of Americans oppose an amendment.

The upcoming congressional vote comes some 228 years after the Continental Congress approved the first official national flag, with its 13 stars and 13 stripes, and nearly 191 years after the banner inspired Francis Scott Key to write one of the most important poems in American history. After witnessing the British invasion of Fort McHenry in the Baltimore harbor, Mr. Key gazed at the embattled fort through his telescope and was struck to see that "our flag was still there."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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