June 14th is Flag Day in the United States, designated by President Harry Truman in 1949. It marks the anniversary of the adoption of the stars and stripes as the national banner in 1777. It's not a national holiday, but Americans are encouraged to display the flag. This year's holiday may take on more significance, because the U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on a resolution to amend the Constitution to protect the American flag from desecration.
A vast majority of the 50 states have already passed resolutions supporting a flag desecration amendment. But do Americans want an amendment to protect the flag? It depends on whom you ask.
"Eighty percent of Americans want the flag protected," says Adrian Cronauer of the Citizens Flag Alliance, a coalition of more than 120 organizations that found wide support for an amendment. "Now when you have four out of five Americans want something that much, you have a fairly good idea of what the public sentiment is."
Or do you? Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, says, "Polls that Freedom Forum reported last year indicated that 63 percent of the public opposed a Constitutional amendment banning flag desecration."
Corn-Revere says the debate over whether to amend the Constitution to protect the flag is a heated one, but not one that divides Americans along traditional party lines. "This isn't a red state - blue state kind of issue. It doesn't divide evenly along liberal or conservative lines. The flag desecration Amendment has the vocal support of veterans groups, and at the same time it is opposed by prominent veterans."
Prominent veterans like former Senator and astronaut John Glenn, a Democrat; former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican; and former POW and domestic policy advisor to Republican President Ronald Reagan, James Warner, who asks why a piece of cloth should be more important than our Constitutional rights. "Why is it the flag that we want to protect? After all, it is a symblem (an emblem depicting a symbol) of our country. Why don't we try to protect the very bedrock, the meaning of the country, the Constitution?"
The US Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the First Amendment to the Constitution protected Americans' right to desecrate the flag as a means of free expression. Jim Warner and others want that ruling to stand.
But Adrian Cronauer says the Constitution was designed to be amended and adds that amending it to protect the flag is appropriate because the "stars and stripes" is a symbol. "It's a unique symbol in this country," Cronauer says. "It does not stand for a particular opinion. It stands for the values that we don't always uphold but certainly aspire to."
"We put our religion as it were, or our fervor, into the display of the flag," says Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center, who has written extensively on the history of the U.S. flag and its role as a symbol. "Of course the irony of that is the physical flag isn't the important thing anyway. It really is the spirit and the meaning of the flag (that's important)."
Jim Warner couldn't agree more. "All men are born free. This is a natural law, the law that is the fundamental law of this country," he says. "People are born free and have a right to their opinions. How ironic if we were to defy natural law to protect the symbol of natural law."
The Senate is scheduled to vote on an amendment to protect the flag from desecration on June 26th. If it passes, Congress would still have to define - for the purposes of enforcing the law - just what constitutes physical desecration and what is a flag. That's not as easy as you might think, since American flags come in all materials and sizes and appear nearly everywhere from paper plates to neck ties.