With an ongoing war in Iraq, Osama bin Laden still in hiding, massive federal budget deficits and necessary Social Security and Medicare reform on the table, one would think that Congress would have a full plate of serious issues to tackle.
Instead, the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 286-130 to push forward an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that says, “The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”
The majority had eight votes more than the two-thirds necessary to send it on to the U.S. Senate. The Associated Press reports there are close to enough votes in that body to then send the measure on to ratification by the states. Supporters would have seven years to secure approval by 38 states.
All due respect to the flag, but all the discussion amounts to little more than a foolish symbolic effort. Few Americans sanction the desecration of the flag. Only a handful of malcontents ever burn the flag, and the flag itself is not something sacred, even as it stands as an important symbol of the country and its supposedly freedom-loving ways.
Freedom, in fact, would only be undermined if the government were given authority to fine or imprison individuals who do not share the same love of the flag as the majority of citizens. And, the term “desecration” is nebulous enough that we can imagine prosecutions for infractions far less than flag burning.
Congress is reacting, in part, to a 1989 Supreme Court decision that declared flag-burning a form of free speech. Taking advantage of the sense of patriotism that has been burnished since 9/11, some members of Congress have been pushing through this overturning of the decision with renewed vigor.
As usual, even those on the right side of the argument, however, don’t quite get it right.
Opponents of the amendment, echoing the Supreme Court, declare that desecrating a flag is a matter of free speech. We see this a bit differently. Obviously, burning a flag is not speech, but action. The debate can be viewed instead as a property rights matter. Whose flag is it? Where is it being desecrated?
As disgraceful as it might be, there should be nothing legally wrong with burning one’s own flag on one’s own property. Burning someone else’s flag, or burning it on someone else’s property, or even on public property, is something altogether different, but not something that would require a constitutional amendment to fix. We like to save tinkering with the Constitution for major issues, such as eliminating slavery.
Rather than stick up for a piece of cloth, members of Congress ought to stick up for the founding principles of the nation. They ought to pursue substance over symbolism.
Perhaps the Senate will say no, thus sparing a seven-year fight in state legislatures across the country. Really, there are more serious battles to fight.