Old Glory's Real Glory

FLAG burning is an act calculated to inflame emotions and create disgust. It offends the patriotic sensibilities of nearly all Americans, and it typically hurts the cause of those who do it. But is it something that demands an amendment to the United States Constitution?

That question arose with a fury in 1989 following a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas law making flag desecration a crime. President Bush immediately pushed for a constitutional amendment to get around the court's finding that flag burning was a form of ''speech,'' protected by the First Amendment. That effort failed.

Later in 1989, Congress passed its own Flag Protection Act, which made abuse of the flag a federal offense. The high court struck that down, too, which spurred a second unsuccessful attempt to amend the Constitution.

Now, five years later, the amendment has risen a third time, with legislatures in 46 states pledged to ratify it and supporters confident that the new Republican majority in Congress will push it through.

That would be a mistake for a number of reasons.

First, the Supreme Court was right. Repugnant as it is, burning or mistreating the flag makes an unmistakable political statement -- of contempt, nihilism, disillusionment, desperation. It's a statement overwhelmingly rejected by Americans, which is why flag burners will remain the tiniest of fringes.

Second, this period seems marked by efforts to ''improve'' the national charter, which has endured so well largely because of its breadth of language and freedom from encumbering detail. We reluctantly backed a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget because of the pressing, long-term concerns raised by that issue. Flag burning, and most of the other amendments now lining up, aren't in that category.

Third, where does one draw the line if a ban on flag desecration gets enshrined in the fundamental law of the land? Does it apply only to ''real'' flags, or to cloth or paper representations of flags? What about disrespectful treatment of flags in the electronic media, in print, on a stage?

Old Glory is a cherished symbol. The best way to honor it is to remain true to the democratic structure it symbolizes, which rests largely on the First Amendment's broad guarantees of free expression.

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