House Subcommittee Approves Flag Amendment; ACLU Says Patriotism Can Not Be Forced

May 24, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee today approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit “desecration” of the American flag. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with veterans and reiterated its strong disapproval of what it calls a misguided and counter-productive initiative.

“Patriotism and respect are earned through the substance and values of a nation, not by its physical symbols,” said Marvin Johnson, a Legislative Counsel for the ACLU. “By making the American flag untouchable, Congress would be sending the message that approval of our nation is an obligation not a choice.”

The amendment was reintroduced last month and went to markup today in the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. It has been introduced in various forms over the last 12 years, but in recent years its margin of support in both the House and Senate have steadily dropped. During the 106th Congress, for example, two Senators who had previously supported the amendment — Robert Byrd, D-WV, and Richard Bryan, D-NV — changed their position and voted against the measure.

In recent years, thousands of veterans have contacted the ACLU to express their indignation to the amendment and to counter proponents’ argument that all American veterans are united in this quest to prohibit physical mistreatment of the flag. A number of very high profile veterans have released statements to dispel this myth, including former Senator John Glenn and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

But perhaps it was Gary May, a highly decorated Marine who lost both his legs during combat in Vietnam, who said it best in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year:

“Freedom is what makes the United States of America strong and great — it is what has kept our democracy strong for more than 200 years,” said May, who serves as the Chairman of Veterans Defending the Bill of Rights, a coalition of veterans who oppose the proposed flag amendment. “The honor veterans like me feel is not in the flag itself, but in the principles the flag stands for and in the people who have defended them.”

“China, Cuba, countries where the only freedoms are those bestowed on a whim by the state – these countries jail their kids for burning the flag,” Johnson said. “We do not. America was created around dissent. Our freedom is founded upon the right to make known our opinion without threat of government interdiction – Old Glory is the ultimate, tangible expression of this national belief.”

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