Flag Measure Doesn't Fly

Congress is in session, so proposals for constitutional amendments can't be far behind. Few of these proposals deserve ratification and fewer ever succeed; so far only 17 have been added since the original Bill of Rights.

Congress is now considering a particularly unwise proposal for the fourth time: A House subcommittee recently approved a measure that would allow Congress to criminalize desecration of the American flag. A similar measure is working its way through the Senate.

Supporters have tried to pass such an amendment since the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 and 1990 that flag-protection laws violated First Amendment free-speech rights. They argue that as the symbol of American values, the flag deserves special protection.

Burning or desecrating America's flag is highly objectionable behavior. It's understandable that those who have served the nation in combat feel a special attachment to the Star-Spangled Banner and the values it represents. But those values include freedom of speech. It's difficult to see how Congress or the states could craft laws under the proposed amendment that wouldn't infringe on that right. After all, one person's decoration is another's desecration. Is it desecration to put the flag on a T-shirt? On the back pocket of a pair of jeans? To hang it upside down?

On another level, the proposal would make the flag into a kind of secular idol whose protection subordinates the rights it stands for. To some, it already is: Some devout members of Christian, Jewish, and other faith groups decline to salute the flag on that basis. Even local congregations of mainstream churches have bitter arguments about whether a flag is proper in a house of worship.

In the end, the flag is a symbol, not the embodiment of the United States. What unites us is not a piece of cloth, however revered, but the values and rights set forth in the Constitution. Congress and the states shouldn't distort that precious document with an inappropriate amendment.

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