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House Again Backs Amendment to Ban Desecrating Flag

The measure goes to the Senate, where backers believe that they finally have the support to send it on to the states for ratification.

June 23, 2005|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House approved, for the sixth time since 1995, a constitutional amendment Wednesday that would allow Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag. The measure now goes to the Senate, which has consistently rejected similar proposals.

But this year, supporters and opponents of the amendment say that passage in the Senate could be extremely close -- within a vote or two. Amendments to the Constitution need approval by two-thirds of the House and the Senate before being sent to the states for ratification.

When the Senate considered the issue in 1995 and 2000, the amendment received 63 votes, four shy of the threshold.

"We count 65 votes [in the Senate] based on voting records and talks," said Marty Justis, executive director of the Citizens Flag Alliance, which has been lobbying Congress to pass the amendment.

"There are 54 official cosponsors [of the bill], so we are targeting the other 46. We are going to target them until the [Senate] vote."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Flag amendment -- An article in Thursday's Section A about the House vote on a flag desecration amendment identified Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena as a Republican and said he did not vote. He is a Democrat and voted against the amendment. Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican from Bakersfield, did not vote.

Justis said he would focus on the handful who were not in the Senate when the issue was last considered -- including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Clinton issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that although she supported federal legislation outlawing flag desecration, "I don't believe a constitutional amendment is the answer.... Those few who would destroy a flag are not worthy of the response of amending our founding document."

Terri Ann Schroeder, senior lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said she was concerned about senators who had said they would oppose such an amendment but had never voted on it.

"If everyone is present and votes the way we expect, we think we would hold by two," Schroeder said. "But if one person who opposes doesn't vote, we are within one. And when we are within one, that changes the dynamics, and we are afraid of switchers.

"We cannot guarantee that we will win this vote [in the Senate]. My concern is that we will wake up the next morning and say, 'Oops, did we just amend the 1st Amendment?' "

The one-sentence amendment -- "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States" -- would overturn a 1989 Supreme Court decision in a Texas case that found that flag burning was a protected form of dissent under the 1st Amendment. It would allow the Senate and the House to pass legislation specifically outlawing flag desecration.

But Schroeder added that she was "excited and surprised" by the House's 286-130 vote, eight votes over the two-thirds majority. "This is the closest vote in 10 years," she said.

Republicans in the California delegation supported the amendment, with the exception of Reps. David Dreier (San Dimas), who voted against it, and Mike Thompson (St. Helena), who did not vote.

Among Democrats, Reps. Joe Baca (San Bernardino), Lois Capps (Santa Barbara), Dennis A. Cardoza (Atwater), Jim Costa (Fresno), Jane Harman (Venice), Tom Lantos (San Mateo), Loretta Sanchez (Anaheim) and Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) joined Republicans in backing the amendment; all other Democrats voted against it.

The possibility of approval in the Senate, observers say, comes from the greater number of Republicans there -- four more than the last time the issue was considered.

"I'm optimistic this Senate will find the handful of votes we've lacked in the past to protect the American flag," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who won his Senate seat in 2004 from then-Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Daschle had voted against the amendment.

Should the amendment pass both chambers, it would still require ratification from legislatures in three-quarters of the states, or 38, within seven years.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego.), main sponsor of the proposal, said on the House floor Wednesday that legislatures in all 50 states had approved resolutions supporting the amendment.

Many supporters say it would be unpatriotic not to support the amendment, but Schroeder, of the ACLU, disagreed. "If we are truly being patriots, we need to protect the right to dissent and liberty in this country," she said.

Schroeder said the amendment addressed a nonproblem -- a point emphasized on the House floor by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution.

"Where is the epidemic of flag burning?" Nadler asked.

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