House Votes to Amend Constitution Once Again; But Margin of Support For Flag Amendment Drops Again

July 17, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives today voted by a slim 8-vote margin to once again approve a controversial proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban desecration of the American flag. This year’s vote was particularly noteworthy, the American Civil Liberties Union said, because the number of votes for the amendment dropped under 300.

“Today’s vote shows that the movement to amend the Bill of Rights is in serious decline,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director and Chief Legislative Counsel of the ACLU Washington National Office. “The bottom line on today’s vote is that more members of Congress than ever have recognized their duty to protect the freedom to dissent in America.”

Today’s vote on the amendment was 298 to 125. Previously, the House approved the flag amendments in 1995 (by a vote of 312 to 120), in 1997 (310 to 114) and in 1999 (305 to 124).

The declining support for the amendment, the ACLU said, reflected the increasing voices of opposition to the amendment of prominent Americans like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and other veterans.

“The freedom of expression, even when it hurts, is the truest test of our dedication to the principles that our flag represents,” said Gary May, the Chairman of Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights. “We will urge the Senate to stand firm and once again reject this unfortunate proposal.”

The amendment now goes to the Senate, where it has failed three times. Most recently, two Senators, including Robert Byrd of West Virginia, switched their positions and joined with 35 of their colleagues to defeat the proposed amendment in 2000.

Were it to pass the Senate and be ratified by three-quarters of the states, the measure would be the first limitation ever of the Bill of Rights and only the 18th change to the Constitution since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. (The first 10 amendments were ratified as a group and are known as the Bill of Rights.) The flag desecration measure would give Congress the power to authorize federal, state, or local authorities to prohibit flag desecration, an action deemed protected speech by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1989 decision Texas v. Johnson.

“Our Constitutional liberties have weathered many a storm and come out much stronger than when they were ratified,” the ACLU’s Nojeim said. “Allowing a ban on flag desecration would compromise the very freedoms that we have struggled so hard to attain.”

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