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Senate Begins Debate on Flag Burning

June 27, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST

TRANSCRIPT

KWAME HOLMAN: A constitutional amendment to prohibit the desecration of the American flag already has passed the House of Representatives six times since 1995, only to fall short of the two-thirds of the vote needed in the Senate.

Utah’s Orrin Hatch was the Republican’s chief advocate of the amendment when it first came up in the Senate in 1990.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: If you’re going to burn our flag, you’re going to pay a price for it. And, frankly, I don’t think that’s going to trample on the Bill of Rights in any way, shape or form.

KWAME HOLMAN: This week, 16 years later, Hatch was pushing the amendment again.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: This is the American flag. This is our national symbol.

KWAME HOLMAN: He spent several hours yesterday and today describing various attacks on the flag…

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Stepping on the flag and urinating and defecating on the flag…

KWAME HOLMAN: … where they happen and when.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Las Vegas, Nevada, September 11, 2004. Sarasota, Florida, December 20, 2005.

Patriotism vs. freedom of speech

KWAME HOLMAN: But many Democrats, including Connecticut's Chris Dodd, countered that amending the Constitution, a rare occurrence indeed, would not prevent future attacks.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: As annoying as that is, as troubling as it is, and I know how we all react to it, nothing we're adopting here could affect those particular acts of desecration.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Dodd reminded colleagues that, in 1989, the Supreme Court recognized flag desecration as a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: I will not take a back seat to anyone in my reverence for the flag, how important it is and what it means. But I also believe it's important to be a patriot, a true patriot. We not only defend our flag, but we also defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

And that's really what is at risk here today when we talk about this amendment, this resolution. It's not so much the flag's at risk, but our Bill of Rights is, if we end up doctoring this document because the passions of some get aroused over the acts of those who would desecrate our flag.

Rebulicans and democrats debate

KWAME HOLMAN: But Texas Republican John Cornyn argued that protecting the country's national symbol is important enough for Congress to amend the Constitution for the first time in nearly three decades.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: And, yes, I know how serious that is. I don't lightly suggest amendments to the Constitution.

But I sincerely believe, in my heart of hearts, that this unique symbol of our country and all of our aspirations and dreams, not only for people here but the kinds of aspirations of dreams that are a beacon to those who come here in the future, and the generations that come hereafter, I believe it deserves special protection.

And, thus, I believe that we ought to take this opportunity to say, yes, you know, Congress does have a voice in this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several Democrats accused Cornyn and other Republicans of pushing the amendment only to score political points in an election year, noting that the Senate spent three days earlier this month debating another constitutional amendment, prohibiting same-sex marriage.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Texas Republican John Cornyn argued that protecting the country's national symbol is important enough for Congress to amend the Constitution for the first time in nearly three decades.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: And, yes, I know how serious that is. I don't lightly suggest amendments to the Constitution.

But I sincerely believe, in my heart of hearts, that this unique symbol of our country and all of our aspirations and dreams, not only for people here but the kinds of aspirations of dreams that are a beacon to those who come here in the future, and the generations that come hereafter, I believe it deserves special protection.

And, thus, I believe that we ought to take this opportunity to say, yes, you know, Congress does have a voice in this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several Democrats accused Cornyn and other Republicans of pushing the amendment only to score political points in an election year, noting that the Senate spent three days earlier this month debating another constitutional amendment, prohibiting same-sex marriage.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: We are here because the White House and the congressional Republican leadership are nervous about the upcoming elections. They want to exploit Americans' patriotism for their gain in November.

It's the same thing with the gay marriage amendment. It wasn't a priority for America. It's a priority for Karl Rove and the Republican strategists.

The real issue here isn't the protection of the flag; it's the protection of the Republican majority. We're not setting out to protect Old Glory; we're setting out to protect old politicians. That's what this is about.

Sadly, Republican leaders are forcing this debate so they can accuse some who disagree with them of being unpatriotic and un-American.

KWAME HOLMAN: But 14 of Durbin's Democratic colleagues have put his political argument aside and expressed their support for the amendment. California's Dianne Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: The flag is, in itself, a monument, subject to similar protection. The American flag is, in fact, our monument in cloth.

The flag flying over our Capital building today, the flag flying over my home here and in San Francisco, each of these flags, separated by distance, but not symbolic value, is its own monument to everything America represents. And it should be protected as such.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate was expected to vote on the amendment this evening. Passage would send the amendment to the states, where it would require ratification by at least 38 state legislatures.