IN a country with an increasingly diverse population and no royal family, the American flag has become a leading symbol of national unity.
And this week, the red, white, and blue banner will be at the center of a sharp political debate over whether it should be protected against burning and other forms of desecration by a constitutional amendment, even at the risk of weakening free- speech provisions in the Bill of Rights.
A vote on the amendment is scheduled for Wednesday in the House. It needs a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to go to the states for ratification as the 28th amendment to the Constitution. Supporters think they have a shot at garnering enough votes.
"The flag is a unique symbol of our country," says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, in support of the movement. A large bipartisan coalition led by veterans groups supports the amendment. President Clinton and civil liberties organizations oppose it.
An amendment would reverse a 1989 Supreme Court decision that overturned state and federal flag-protection laws.
Congress failed to pass a similar amendment in 1990, when Democrats were in control. Even though there have been few flag burnings since then, the Republican victory last November gives backers of the amendment new hope it could pass.