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Constitutional Protection for Flag Launched in House

June 30, 1989|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With the endorsement of President Bush, House members Thursday introduced a constitutional amendment that would ban desecration of the U.S. flag.

The one-sentence amendment, which came in response to last week's Supreme Court decision permitting flag burning as a form of free speech, reads: "The Congress and the states shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who introduced the proposed amendment along with Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), said: "We are taking this step because it is the only way to protect the flag, given the recent Supreme Court decision.

"The flag already is consecrated through 200 years of love and sacrifice and reverence of a special, almost sacred kind. We seek only to protect it, just as you'd protect any loved one under attack."

In its 5-4 decision, the high court held that a Texas law banning desecration of the flag violated an individual's right to criticize the U.S. government. The decision sparked an uproar across the country, and many elected officials, including Bush, have vowed to take steps to reverse the ruling.

Earlier this week, Bush said that he would sponsor a constitutional amendment to overturn the court's decision. But the President later decided to let House members proceed with their own proposal, according to a Republican leadership aide. The President "signed off on our proposal, and that is what Congress will now be working with," the aide said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman announced that Bush will travel today to the Iwo Jima war memorial in Arlington, Va., to rally support for the flag.

All-Night Session

Michel's announcement came on the heels of an all-night session of the House, in which 20 to 25 members made lengthy speeches denouncing the court's decision. During the marathon of speeches, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) told the House that the government gives more protection to U.S. currency, by making its destruction illegal.

"We can't rip up our own money," Dornan said. "It is protected. But beautiful Old Glory is not."

Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.) said the same protection applies to U.S. mailboxes. He noted that the willful destruction of a mailbox is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

In a brief press statement, Michel said that he has consulted with constitutional law experts and determined that legislation alone would not be sufficient to reverse the court's controversial ruling.

Other members of Congress, however, have suggested that federal and state flag-burning laws could be rewritten to meet the court's objections.

Drops 'Harm' Reference

Last week, for example, the Senate unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) that would change the current federal statute banning flag desecration. Biden said that the proposed law would ban desecration of the flag but make no reference to the "harm" such action could cause, as the Texas law did.

Michel, brushing aside concerns about the constitutionality of his proposed amendment, said that he has more faith "in the strength of the Constitution and in the common sense of the American people to believe that the First Amendment can be weakened by protecting the flag from desecration."

The Republican leader said that his amendment would be heard by the House Judiciary Committee shortly after Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess. At that time, he said: "I will address the various specific questions of interpretation that will arise. This amendment will protect Old Glory and our First Amendment rights."

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