The Senate last night fell one vote shy of passing a constitutional amendment against flag burning, with supporters calling the vote a blow to the American flag.
“Old Glory lost today,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “Protecting the symbol of our nation’s freedom is important, and I hope the amendment’s support in the Senate will continue to grow.”
The American Civil Liberties Union countered by calling the vote a “victory for the First Amendment.”
Senators voted 66-34 in favor of the amendment, an increase of three lawmakers since the last Senate vote in March 2000 but short of the 67 needed. Senate leaders were not certain up to the last minute whether the measure would pass. They initially thought they would fall a vote short, but they hoped to persuade a final senator.
The amendment would have granted Congress the authority to write laws banning the physical desecration of the American flag.
Over two days of debate, supporters argued that the American flag must be protected because it “represents everything this country stands for,” said Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican.
They said the amendment would “send a message to the Supreme Court,” which struck down state flag-protection laws in 1989 and a federal law intended to reverse that ruling.
“The Supreme Court should not be deciding difficult social issues,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.
President Bush last night issued a statement saying that he thinks respect for the flag shows “reverence for the ideals that guide our nation.”
“The American people deserve the opportunity to express their views on this important issue,” he said.
Supporters noted that all 50 state legislatures have supported flag protection, and said the House of Representatives has passed such an amendment six times.
Opponents agreed that desecrating the flag is “disgusting,” “abhorrent” and “offensive,” but said changing the Constitution would be a violation of free speech.
“I love the flag; we all love the flag and all that it represents,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, clutching a copy of the Constitution.
“While I agree that desecration of the flag is abhorrent, repugnant, amending the Constitution flies in the very face of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech,” he said.
Burning a flag is “obscene, painful, unpatriotic,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat and a World War II veteran. “But I believe Americans gave their lives in many wars to make sure that all Americans have the right to express themselves, even those who express painful thoughts.”
Opponents of the amendment also argued that the concept of “desecration” was vague. They showed images of Mr. Bush using a marker to autograph a U.S. flag and of musician Kid Rock wearing a shirt made out of the flag.
They noted that only a few incidents of flag burning have occurred since the Supreme Court decision, and said the Senate has more important issues to debate before the weeklong Independence Day recess.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said Republicans had “turned the flag into a partisan political weapon.”
However, 14 Democrats joined all but three of the chamber’s 55 Republicans in favor of the amendment.
Meanwhile yesterday, the House unanimously passed by voice vote a bill that said condominium associations cannot prohibit residents from flying the American flag at their homes.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, praised his chamber’s resolution, calling the flag the nation’s “most vivid and sacred symbol of freedom.”