Flag Burning

Saturday, 25 June 2005

The U.S. House of Representatives has once again passed a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow Congress to make desecrating a U.S. flag a crime. This amendment has passed before, but the difference this time is that the Senate is within a vote or two of having enough supporters to pass it as well, sending it to the states for almost certain approval. If the Senate passes the amendment, and if the states ratify it, the right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, will have been legally diminished for the first time.

Supporters of the anti-flag burning amendment claim that burning a flag is not an act of communication, so it is OK to ban it. But it is precisely because burning a flag is communication that so many people find it offensive. Vietnam War protesters burned flags to show their opposition to the government that sent tens of thousands of young Americans to die on foreign soil. Other activities involving a flag, such as flying it at half-mast to indicate mourning, flying it upside down to indicate danger, draping it over a coffin to indicate honor, presenting it to a widow to indicate gratitude, or wearing it on a lapel to indicate patriotism all prove that the flag is often used to communicate one message or another. Banning activities that "desecrate" the flag is just a way of inhibiting the free speech rights of American citizens.

The view that flag burning is not an act of free speech is also contrary to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, in the case Texas v. Johnson, which called laws that prohibit flag desecration unconstitutional. Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, said, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." His comments were nothing novel, for they echo the words of an earlier Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "The principle of free speech is not free speech for those who agree with us but freedom for the speech we hate."

Not only would an anti-flag burning amendment be an affront to free speech, it would also be unworkable. Let's assume that flag burning were deemed to be a violation of the law, punishable by fine or time in jail. What about other activities that could be thought of as desecration, such as wearing a shirt made out of a flag, or wearing a bandana made out of a flag, or flying a tattered flag on a flagpole, or keeping an extremely faded flag bumper sticker on a car? Would it be desecration to show an image on TV or on the Web of a flag being burned? Would it be illegal to display an animated GIF image that showed a burning flag? What if the flag in question were somehow irregular (e.g., too many stripes, not enough stars, the old 48-star flag, a flag with colors reversed, a flag whose field of stars had been replaced by a picture of George W. Bush)? Would saying mean things about the flag be considered desecration (e.g., "You're so ugly, I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole!")? Would refusing to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance be considered desecration?

Burning a flag definitely sends a message, but banning flag burning would send an even louder message, and a devastating one. Such a constitutional amendment would say to the world, "America no longer supports freedom of speech. It's OK to speak in favor of the U.S., but we'll throw you in jail if we disagree with your point of view." For people of faith, the ramifications of the amendment would be especially important. It would be legal to burn a Bible or a Quran but not the flag, suggesting that the flag is a more important symbol than either holy book. It would be legal to desecrate a picture of Jesus or Muhammad or the Buddha but not the flag. It might even be considered illegal to fly the Christian flag above the U.S. flag on a flagpole, symbolizing that commitment to Christ takes precedence over commitment to country.

I lived and taught for awhile in South Africa, a country that, at the time, severely restricted the free-speech and other rights of its citizens. I remember stepping off the airplane onto American soil for the first time in more than a year and feeling a rush of freedom. When I saw our flag flying from a flagpole, I was filled with pride, because I now understood better the freedoms that it stood for. If the anti-flag burning amendment is passed, the flag will no longer have that meaning for me. It will have become a symbol of commitment to the official government standpoint rather than a symbol of the freedoms for which a great nation once stood. It will have become a symbol to which citizens once pledged voluntary allegiance but which now they were forced by law to revere. It will have become a symbol that is the very opposite of this country's greatest strength, its commitment to freedom.

© Copyright 2005, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology