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Push persists to protect Stars and Stripes

House acts, again, to ban flag burning. Is Constitution any closer to being amended?

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When residents of Candlelight Lane in nearby Potomac, Md., padded out to retrieve their morning papers on July 2, each found a small American flag placed in the ground beside the mailbox.

More than two weeks later, as Congress considers a bill intended to prevent desecration of the American flag, most of the tiny banners - the gift of a local realtor - are still waving. That they do reflects what polls repeatedly have indicated: Americans support the flag -even if not with World War II-era fervor - and they don't want it desecrated.

Flag burning and other forms of desecration were common during Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and early '70s. In response, the Texas Legislature and, later, Congress, passed laws making desecration illegal.

But the US Supreme Court ruled both laws unconstitutional. No matter how repugnant, it said, desecration is an act of free speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which says: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech."

For proponents of such a law, there's only one way to get around the court rulings: Amend the Constitution. Now, for the fourth time in the past decade, they're trying.

The proposed amendment is brief and direct. It would change the Constitution's First Amendment to say: "The Congress shall have the power ... to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

So far, the effort has been Sisyphean. The measure has passed the House by the necessary two-thirds but never made it through the Senate. It came close last time - falling four votes short of two-thirds in the Senate. This year is likely to be more of the same, analysts say. Tuesday it passed the House as usual, 298 to 125, but the Senate looms ahead.

What motivates proponents to make the effort year after year is deep conviction and, for some, a recognition of the vote's political impact. "People who vote against this amendment," says political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, "can be forced into a position where they have to argue why it's not a bad thing to desecrate the flag."

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