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Flag-Burning Debate Heats Up

For the third consecutive Congress, the House is voting to amend the Constitution to allow legislation that would ban desecration of the flag.

The House's certain approval moves the focus to the Senate, which in the past has resisted the amendment that supporters say is needed to protect the nation's symbol. Opponents argue it would be an infringement of First Amendment free-speech rights.

Both sides agree that a Senate vote will be close, that backers of the amendment are one or two votes short of the 67 needed for approval.

CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller reports that the White House Thursday issued a statement on the proposed amendment, saying that, "efforts to limit the First Amendment to make a narrow exception for desecration are misguided."

The statement says the president condemns those who show the flag any form of disrespect - but that Congress should be, "deeply reluctant to tamper with the First Amendment."

Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 they have pushed numerous amendments to the Constitution dealing with a balanced budget, congressional term limits, school prayer and other issues. None has come as close to approval as the flag measure.

The House achieved the two-thirds margin with 312 votes in 1995 and 310 votes in 1997. The Senate fell four short in 1995 with a 63-36 vote.

It takes two-thirds majority votes in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states to amend the Constitution. Including the 10 provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.

Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., chief sponsor of the amendment, said its purpose is not to limit free speech but to give Congress the authority to write legislation banning the physical desecration of the flag.

He said it was needed because of Supreme Court decisions in 1989 and 1990 that invalidated the flag-protection laws of 48 states and struck down a flag-protection law passed by Congress.

The court, Cunningham said Wednesday during debate, "wiped out 200 years of tradition" by removing protections for the flag, which is "important to the core, to the heart, to the mind and the soul" of the country.

Ret. Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, chairman of the Citizens Flag Alliance, said the House vote reflected the popular will and the wishes of 49 state legislatures that have endorsed it. "The House is the body closest to the people, and I think they are responding to the people," he said.

But opponents said acts of desecration are rare and don't warrant altering the Bill of Rights for the first time in history.

"What is the crisis for the Republic?" asked Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who wore an American flag tie for the debate. "The real threais not the occasional burning of a flag, but the permanent banning of the burners."

"As the rest of the world looks to America as its inspiration for democracy and freedom of speech, it would be a terrible irony now to diminish our own Bill of Rights, which has stood up for more than two centuries," said Paul Tash, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the freedom of information committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., earlier this year said the Senate would vote on the matter by Memorial Day, but that got delayed after two undecided Democrats from North Dakota whom supporters had hoped to win, Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, declared they thought the flag could be protected through legislation and a constitutional amendment was not needed.

Lott's spokesman, John Czwartacki, says the plan now is to have a vote by late summer.

The 17-word amendment states simply, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

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