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Bush Asks Ban on Flag Desecration : Backs Constitutional Amendment in Wake of Supreme Court Ruling

Times Staff Writer

President Bush, declaring that “support for the First Amendment need not extend to desecration of the American flag,” called Tuesday for a constitutional amendment to prohibit such protest.

“Flag burning is wrong. . . . As President, I will uphold our precious right to dissent, but burning the flag goes too far and I want to see that matter remedied,” he said.

By stepping into the highly emotional issue that was opened last week when the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the burning of the flag as a form of free speech, Bush joined a political clamor that mirrored last year’s presidential campaign in which he successfully turned a spotlight on his support for the Pledge of Allegiance.

By the end of the day Tuesday, members of Congress also were lining up to voice opposition to flag burning.

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The House, by a vote of 411 to 5, passed a resolution--intended to demonstrate a leadership role for the Democrats on a political issue that Republicans have used successfully--that expressed “profound concern” with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling. The Senate, by a vote of 97 to 3, passed a resolution last Thursday expressing “profound disappointment” about the court ruling.

And Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) called Tuesday for a special Fourth of July congressional session to adopt a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag.

Bush, speaking at a morning news conference, acknowledged that “we’ve got to be very careful in our society” to protect the right of protest.

“However, I believe that the flag of the United States should never be the object of desecration,” he said. “Protection of the flag, a unique national symbol, will in no way limit the opportunity nor the breadth of protest available in the exercise of free speech rights.”

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That view contrasted with the opinion of the majority on the court, for which Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote: “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”

But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, said that he could not fathom how a government that can order soldiers to “fight and perhaps die for the flag” may not punish people for “the public burning of the banner under which they fight.”

In the view of political consultants and other political figures, the emotional tug of the issue--and the political favor attached to it--cannot be underestimated. And, one of them suggested, this was not lost on the President.

“It’s leadership George Bush style--find an issue 80% of the people agree with you on and step out front on it,” said Democratic political consultant Harrison Hickman.

Deep-Seated Feeling

One White House official portrayed the President’s support for an as-yet-undefined constitutional amendment as one that reflects a deep-seated feeling as well as the political common sense that made his support for the Pledge of Allegiance a powerful campaign issue--despite what he described as the President’s ability “to understand another point of view.”

“I’d have thought the more Bush thought about it, the more he’d understand the Supreme Court’s view. I guessed wrong,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There are high-brow, legalistic arguments--free speech and all of that--but it just doesn’t pass the common sense test” of the President.

White House officials said that Bush raised the subject of a constitutional amendment in a meeting late Monday with White House counsel C. Boyden Gray. But, they said, there were no other meetings on the issue, that an organized White House effort to prepare specific language for a proposed amendment may be a week or more away and that it is not certain if Bush will simply endorse one of several amendment proposals raised in Congress.

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A constitutional amendment, once approved by two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, must be approved by the legislatures in 38 states.

While amendments repeatedly have been proposed to overturn controversial Supreme Court decisions, only four such amendments have been adopted. One, the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, took only a year to be passed and ratified, but others have taken decades.

Even as momentum appeared to be building in Washington for efforts to counter the court’s decision, there were voices of dissent from several quarters.

Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, a conservative Republican from New Hampshire who has announced that he will not seek reelection next year, said in an interview: “Things have gotten blown out of proportion. There are very few instances of flag burning. What are we doing, talking about amending the Constitution to deal with these few cases?”

Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), one of the few other voices in Congress that has not been demanding action along the lines advanced by the President, said: “What makes America such a great democracy is that we do not silence the political expression even of those with whose views we most fundamentally disagree.

“In the 200 years since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended only 16 times, mostly to expand our rights. It would be tragically ironic if in this year of its celebration, we were to adopt an amendment weakening the Bill of Rights,” Weiss said. “We have nothing to fear from the flag burners. We have a great deal to fear from those who have lost faith in the Constitution.”

“Today’s announcement,” said Arthur J. Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group, “is a triumph of politics over policy.”

The political sensitivity of the issue was demonstrated by Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee and an architect of Bush’s presidential campaign.

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Is it politically possible for an official to speak out against efforts to overcome the court’s decision? he was asked.

“I would never advise anybody to do it,” he replied.

During the day, congressional Democrats took pains not to be outmaneuvered. However, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said that a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) would conduct hearings on the constitutional issues involved in the flag-burning decision.

“These hearings are going to be deliberative and will be constructive,” Foley said. “Speaking personally, I do not feel we should rush in with an amendment to the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

And Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), newly elected vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said: “If the opposition party tries to manipulate this thing, it would be shameful. You don’t play around with the First Amendment. If a few people want to demagogue the issue, so be it.”

For his part, Bush said that he sees no partisanship in the issue.

“It isn’t Republican or Democrat, it isn’t liberal or conservative,” he said.

Staff writers David Lauter and William J. Eaton contributed to this story.

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