Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Flag-desecration amendment needs 1 more vote

Flag-desecration amendment needs 1 more vote
By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Senate is one vote away from passing a constitutional amendment that would ban desecration of the U.S. flag, the closest that amendment supporters have been to passage.

The American Legion, which supports the amendment, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes it, both say there are 66 votes to pass it.

Whether advocates can find the 67th vote to send the flag amendment to the states for ratification remains unclear. A Senate vote is set for the week of June 26.

Elections, post-9/11 patriotism and the Iraq war have improved the measure's prospects since the Senate last voted in 2000, says Patrick Brady of the Citizens Flag Alliance. "We're very hopeful we'll get it," he says.

The House of Representatives last year approved the flag amendment 286-130. It was the seventh time it had done so since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Texas law banning flag burning in 1989. The next year, the court ruled that the federal Flag Protection Act violated the First Amendment's free speech guarantee.

"The American flag is a unique symbol that should be protected," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chief sponsor.

Paul McMasters of the non-partisan First Amendment Center, which works to protect that amendment's freedoms, says the Senate is trying to provide "a radical solution to a non-problem. It's unwise, unnecessary and un-American."

Four times in the Senate, the flag measure has failed to receive the two-thirds majority required of constitutional amendments. In 2000, the amendment came up four votes short with 63.

But as Flag Day approaches Wednesday, advocates on both sides of the issue say momentum has shifted. Reasons:

•Republican gains. Sens. George Allen of Virginia, John Thune of South Dakota, John Ensign of Nevada and Richard Burr of North Carolina, all supporters of an amendment, replaced Democrats who opposed one.

•Supportive Democrats. Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and at least 13 other Democrats have voted for or voiced support for the amendment. New Jersey's Robert Menendez voted for it as a House member, and his spokesman, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, says his "current intention" is to do so as a senator. Menendez replaced now-Gov. Jon Corzine, who had opposed it.

•State resolutions. All 50 states have approved non-binding resolutions endorsing an amendment. "That is unprecedented and shouldn't be ignored," American Legion legislative director Steve Robertson says. "We will see if the senators are listening to their constituents or not."

Thirty-eight, or three-fourths, of the 50 states must ratify the measure to make it the 28th Amendment.

It took a record 202 years for states to ratify the 27th Amendment, which says a congressional pay raise can't take effect until after the next election has been held. The 26th Amendment, guaranteeing 18-year-olds the right to vote, was the quickest to be ratified: It took 100 days in 1971.

For now, enough senators — including three Republicans — remain opposed to the flag amendment to keep it from getting to the states. Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah wants to write a law instead of rewriting the Constitution. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky objects to altering the First Amendment. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island also voted no in 2000.

John Vile, a constitutional law expert at Middle Tennessee State University, says some believe that the amendment "would be the first in U.S. history to restrict the Bill of Rights."

Despite ads by the Citizens Flag Alliance urging his support, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has no plans to vote yes and does not believe his re-election will be affected. Says spokesman Chris Thorne: "This is not an issue that people are talking to us about."

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