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Flag Burning Debate Unfurls

A Senate panel Thursday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban flag burning. The proposal is given its best chance in years of being referred to the states for ratification.

By 11-7, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended Senate approval of the 17-word amendment that attained far more than the two-thirds majority required in the House in 1997. What has changed this year is the support for the measure in the Senate, where it fell three votes short in 1995.

Approval by two-thirds in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states would add the provision to the Constitution.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott earlier this month put the amendment on his legislative priority list, and several Republican senators said they expect the issue to come to the floor for a vote before Memorial Day.

Among the factors changing the lineup this time are the election of former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, a Republican who supports the constitutional amendment, to the seat vacated by retired Sen. John Glenn, a Democrat who opposed it. Also, North Dakota Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of whom voted against the amendment in 1995, are currently undecided, their spokesmen said.

Opponents of the amendment say it would restrict the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Supporters say its worth changing the Constitution for the values the amendment symbolizes.

The debate in the Senate crosses party lines. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., for example, chided supporters of the measure on Wednesday by telling the Judiciary Committee that "We cannot mandate respect and pride in the flag." He said the amendment is an overreaction to a rare practice.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the committee Thursday that she supports the amendment because the flag "is a monument in fabric that hangs as a symbol of our nation" and its values.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, one supporter even said the amendment would be a first step toward healing some of the nation's ills, including the factors that led two teen-agers to kill 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School before killing themselves on April 20.

"Some of our cultural problems today" are the result of "lack of respect for things bigger than ourselves," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. The flag, he said, "is a symbol in itself of our values."

In part because of the changing odds, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sought help from an old friend and colleague: Glenn.

The astronaut, Korean War veteran and staunch opponent of the amendment told the committee the proposal would undermine some of the very constitutional rights the flag symbolizes. Desecrating the flag, Glenn said, is not a widespread practice and even if it were, such expression is a right guaranteed by the Constitution's freedom of peech clause.

"It would indeed be a hollow victory to protect a symbol by taking any chance at chipping away at the freedoms themselves," Glenn told the panel.

But proponents of the legislation fired back, contending that protecting the flag's symbolism is important enough to amend the Constitution.

By Laurie Kellman

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