Date: June 11, 2006
Byline: Fred Mann
A burning issue
Does our flag need federal protection?
Oh, say, can you still see the American flag through all the controversy swirling around that simple piece of cloth?
For centuries, we have wept over it, fought over it, used it to debate free speech, and argued about why our soldiers died for it.
We take the flag personally.
Now, politicians have taken hold of it again.
As Flag Day approaches, the U.S. Senate is gearing up for a vote later this month on a one-sentence constitutional amendment granting lawmakers the "power to prohibit the physical desecration" of the flag.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that flag desecration, including burning, was a protected form of speech in 1989 and 1990, repeated attempts for such an amendment have been made in the House, only to fail in the Senate.
The House approved this version last year. Since the makeup of the Senate changed after the 2004 elections, the amendment may have its best chance. Observers think it is perhaps within a vote or two of the two-thirds majority required for passage.
For Patrick C. Sanders, a Vietnam veteran and senior vice commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3115 in Wichita, the flag is as beautiful as ever, and the issue is simple.
"Every time you desecrate a flag, you desecrate a soldier who has died for this country," Sanders says.
He sees the flag as a symbol of the mightiest nation on Earth and of the deaths of those who fought to keep it that way.
"Every time I see a flag burned, it just burns a hole in my heart," he says.
But for Homer Keith, an 82-year-old veteran of World War II, the flag is a symbol of service to country, not a political tool that needs an amendment.
"There are too many people that worry about the flag, but when the time comes to do something to protect the country, they hide out," he says.
Keith fought in Burma, India and China. You don't think about symbols when bullets are flying, he says. You think about survival.
Get out of Iraq, Keith says, and then think about the flag.
"I don't agree with someone running around burning the flag," Keith says, "but I think we got bigger problems."
Flag's history in politics
Flag tinkering by lawyers and politicians isn't new.
The House first considered a law to protect the flag in 1878. Lawmakers ultimately rejected a proposal to ban the use of the flag for commercial advertising because they feared they wouldn't be able to use it in their political campaigns.
The U.S. Supreme Court first became involved in 1907, when it determined that a Nebraska law forbidding the use of the flag to advertise a brand of beer didn't violate the Constitution.
If Congress approves the desecration amendment, it will advance to the state legislatures for approval. At least three-fourths of the states — 38 — would have to accept it within seven years for it to become part of the Constitution. All 50 states have passed resolutions supporting the amendment.
Then, Congress would have to create legislation to enforce it.
Freedom and dissent
An amendment protecting the flag would be a disaster for the Bill of Rights, according to Carolyn Brown, board member of the South-Central Kansas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church.
She says its passage would mark the first time the Constitution has been used to restrict a freedom since Prohibition.
"That's a very perverse use of the Constitution, because the flag represents the Bill of Rights and the free expression of speech and the right to dissent," she says.
Banning an unpopular form of dissent, such as burning the flag, means that more popular forms of dissent could be banned next, she says.
"Free expression is the cornerstone of our government," Brown says. "Without that foundation, the Bill of Rights goes out the window."
Amendment supporters say burning a flag isn't speech. They support freedom of expression, but claim it should stop at burning the symbol of America.
"To burn the flag is like spitting in the face of this country and the people who died to make it what it is," said James Crump, former president of Wichita branch of the NAACP, who earned a Purple Heart with the Marines in Vietnam in 1967.
For another World War II veteran, Clarence Carroll the amendment is long overdue.
"Damn right. We got men dying every day," he says.
Carroll, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, has loved the flag since he was 4 and his father took him and seven siblings to parades and dinners honoring George Washington.
"I get a thrill every time I see it flying," Carroll says.
To veterans' groups, the only time a flag should be burned is when it is old and tattered and unfit to fly anymore. Burning is the recommended method of disposing of old flags in the U.S. Flag Code.
Once a year, usually around Flag Day, they hold dignified flag-burning ceremonies and bury the ashes of the old flags.
No photos allowed, no publicity.
"It's not a happy occasion. It's a solemn military burial," Sanders says.
What is 'desecration'?
Burning isn't the only issue. If the desecration amendment passes, legislators grappling with a statute will have to define what desecration means.
Does it include wearing the flag as a shirt or swimsuit? Using it in commercials? Letting it touch the floor the way you always feared you'd do as a kid when you carried the flag across the school gym at an assembly?
In 2003, President Bush autographed a flag during a stop in Michigan. That put him in violation of U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8 (g): "The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture or drawing of any nature."
No charges were filed.
The U.S. Code regarding the flag has no penalties for violations. It is intended as a guide to ensure respect.
Using the flag's image on apparel and other products has come full circle since the early 1900s when it was widely used on products, causing states to adopt anti-desecration laws.
In 1968, anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag as a shirt. A school girl was sent home for wearing a small flag insignia on her bell-bottom jeans in 1971.
Today, flag apparel is plentiful again, from souvenir T-shirts to designer jeans.
Patriotism after 9/11
Some people are content to simply fly it. And flag stores in Wichita report that people are taking better care of Old Glory, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They have customers coming back to buy new ones and keep a fresh flag flying.
Dorothy Drummond, who owns and operates a flag business, Kansas Flagpole, out of her house at 2739 S. Larkin, remembers being swamped after the terrorist attacks.
"We had a six-month supply that sold out in a couple of weeks," she says.
Business has calmed down but remains steady, she says. People return every five or six months to get new flags.
"That's about how long they last in this wind," she says.
"We've definitely seen an increase in repeat people coming back and replacing them," says Steven Knipp, owner of Knipp's at 1324 E. Harry. "There's been a lot more patriotism."
Most people who fly a flag raise it once and leave it up 24 hours a day — whether they have night illumination, as required by the code, or not.
But Col. Bob Hester, director of the Junior ROTC program for Wichita schools, raises the flag at his home in southeast Wichita every morning and lowers it every evening.
Up it goes, down it comes, day after day.
Hester traveled the world as a soldier and fought in Vietnam.
"If there was any lesson I learned from living in any foreign country, it is the importance of being an American citizen," he says.
So raising and lowering the flag every day never grows old for Hester.
"It means a lot to me," he says.
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