Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias You could call it an annual rite of summer.

About this time of the year, with Independence Day just around the corner, pleas are made by individuals or organizations for Congress to pass the flag protection amendment.

Understandably, a great number of Americans, no doubt a majority of them, don't want to see the stars and stripes desecrated by any means.

Ray G. Smith is one of them. Smith is the national commander of the American Legion. He spoke at the annual business meeting of the South Dakota Legion state leadership in Aberdeen earlier this month.

He is calling upon South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, who just recently has been thrust into national prominence by becoming Senate Majority Leader, to spearhead passage of the flag protection amendment in the Senate.

We encourage Daschle to concentrate his efforts on more pressing matters, such as prescription drug prices, a patients bill of rights, Social Security and energy.

We don't say this to discredit Smith's passion about our national emblem. Indeed, when it comes to the U.S. flag and all that it symbolizes, we would estimate that Smith's views and ours aren't all that different.

We do feel compelled, however, to address the myth surrounding the proposed flag protection amendment.

Changing the Bill of Rights, we believe, will do little to protect the flag. People intent on desecrating it won't care if there is an ordinance or a law or constitutional amendment prohibiting it.

They'll just do it anyway.

The amendment, in its attempts to stop desecration of the stars and stripes, would serve only as an unneeded infringement on free speech if it were approved.

Flag burning, loathsome as we believe it to be, is nothing more than political speech expressed in a different form, and as such, enjoys First Amendment protections.

Would we amend the Constitution to prohibit verbal denunciations of America? That's something that we wouldn't even consider.

Then how can we amend the Constitution to prohibit symbolic expressions of the same type?

The very people who should have the highest respect for the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment are attacking it.

Flag burning, no matter how repugnant all red-blooded, God-fearing, mother-loving Americans find it, is symbolic political speech.

In this country, that's protected.

Who would want it any other way? Americans don't put people in jail for protesting � we leave that kind of abhorrent behavior to the likes of China.

Amending the Constitution has failed before because the wisdom of the court prevailed. The pity is that it's being tried again.

Practical considerations aside � flag-burning is a marginal issue at best � the most troubling aspect of this latest folly is the number of politicians who apparently believe that woven stands of color are more important than the freedoms they represent.

If Americans allow Congress to take away part of their basic rights, what's next? Any attempt to limit the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights must be viewed with trepidation.

We understand the passion around this issue. Most Americans are distressed when people burn, trample or otherwise show disrespect to the flag.

But do we really want to begin forcing people to show respect for a piece of cloth? Because that's all it is in the physical world � just colorful fibers woven together.

We're upset by the intellectual disrespect, because we have developed an emotional bond with our flag.

It is a symbol of all that is great about this nation, an emblem of the sacrifices made on our behalf.

The flag is shorthand for freedom. We think people should respect the flag.

We should teach people to care for the flag, and to honor it.

But we should not make the flag into something it is not. No amount of flag burning tarnishes the ideals it represents; that someone can abuse a flag is a testament to this nation's power and the freedoms we enjoy.

This country ought to be about more than what we can put our fingers on.

America is about ideas of equality and freedom. The flag amendment is well-intentioned, but it would serve only to undermine the liberties it's meant to represent.

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