June 15, 2006

Flag-burning amendment heads to Senate floor

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A measure that would change the U.S.
Constitution to let Congress ban burning the American flag was
sent to the Senate floor on Thursday, setting up an
election-year debate.

The amendment has already passed the U.S. House of
Representatives by the needed two-thirds margin. The bill's
sponsor, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, said he believes it
will pass the Senate.

"I know we have more than 67 votes, if people are allowed
to vote their conscience," Hatch said after the Judiciary
Committee's 11-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines.

The flag debate comes shortly after the Senate defeated a
constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriages.
Democrats say Republicans are scheduling votes on a string of
similar issues to win support from conservatives who might
otherwise not vote in the November congressional elections.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning was
protected under constitutional free-speech guarantees,
invalidating laws in 48 states and outraging veterans' groups
and others who say that an important national symbol should be
protected from defacement.

"You can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theater. There's
restrictions on everything," said Richard Pedro, an adjutant
with the American Legion of New York who observed the committee

Other veterans' groups say the amendment would erode the
freedom of expression that they fought for, a point echoed by
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

"In America you do not stamp out a bad idea by repressing
it, you stamp out a bad idea with a better idea," he said.

Leahy said veterans' groups should focus on improving
health care and other government services owed them.

According to a CNN poll released on Wednesday, 56 percent
of American adults support the flag-burning amendment, while 40
percent oppose it.

The amendment, which must win approval from at least 38
states within seven years, would not prohibit flag desecration
but give Congress the power to say how the flag can be
protected and what penalties should apply.

The Senate is expected to take up the amendment before the
July 4 recess.