WASHINGTON — A constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to outlaw flag-burning sailed through the House on Thursday but faces a less-certain future in the Senate, where the idea was rejected two years ago.
The vote was 310-114, a margin well above the two-thirds needed to adopt a constitutional amendment.
U.S. Rep. John Baldacci of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District voted for the amendment; 1st District Rep. Tom Allen voted against it.
This is the third time Congress has tried to pass such an amendment. Conservatives have long favored protecting the flag against desecration and have been pushing legislation to accomplish that since Republicans seized control of Congress in 1995.
Republican leaders have agreed to delay a vote in the Senate to give supporters time to lobby for more votes, said Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., the bill’s sponsor.
During debate on the House floor, supporters said passage of the measure was a fitting and timely tribute to the men and women who died defending the United States.
“This is an overwhelmingly popular idea whose time has come,” said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. “As we look toward Flag Day this Saturday we want to be able to send to our nation’s veterans — and in fact to all Americans — the simple gift of knowing that the flag that stirred their hearts, that so many have fought for, that so many have died for, will be as sacred and secure as the freedom and liberty it embraces.”
Opponents insisted the amendment would reduce freedom by setting an inappropriate limit on free speech and putting the government into the business of regulating political protest.
“This amendment will for the first time in over 200 years reduce our First Amendment rights to freedom of expression,” said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.
The Clinton administration called the amendment unwise.
“The president is deeply committed to protection of the United States flag and will continue to condemn those who show it any form of disrespect,” said a written statement from the Office of Management and Budget. “The administration believes, however, that efforts to limit the First Amendment to make a narrow exception for flag desecration are misguided. The Congress should be deeply reluctant to tamper with the First Amendment, which has never been amended since it was adopted more than 200 years ago.”
The one-sentence amendment says, “The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” It would not by itself outlaw flag-burning or activities that result in damage to a flag, but it would authorize Congress to do so.
If the resolution draws 67 votes in the Senate, it must then win the ratification from three-fourths of the state legislatures before it is added to the Constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that burning a 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.
Supporters ridiculed suggestions that outlawing flag desecration would violate the First Amendment, saying the right of free speech is not absolute.
“Anyone can criticize the flag. Anyone can criticize the Supreme Court building right over there, but you cannot go over there and physically desecrate the Supreme Court building,” Solomon said. “I don’t consider burning the flag freedom of speech. I think it is a hateful tantrum.”
Opponents said they don’t like to see the flag burned either, but passing a law against it is contrary to the American ideals of tolerance and liberty.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., accused amendment supporters of “mistaking the flag for a icon to be worshiped. … People don’t die for symbols. They fight and they die for freedom.”