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Flag Desecration Amendment - Continued

Location: Washington, DC

FLAG DESECRATION AMENDMENT--Continued -- (Senate - June 27, 2006)


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to speak in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment.

There have been so many moments in our history where the flag was not just a piece of cloth. It was a focal point that united this country through both our most difficult days and our proudest moments. This is the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. It is the flag that Illinois soldiers rallied to during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is the flag that marines raised over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during a battle that claimed 6,800 American lives. It is the flag that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted on the surface of the moon. It is the flag that was draped over the charred Pentagon following the September 11 attack. It is the flag that rests atop the caskets of the men and women who give the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I cannot imagine anything more abhorrent to a veteran than seeing the flag they fought for, or watched their good friends die for, being burned to make a political point. Although I have not served in the military, I too have great pride in our flag, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans. I share outrage at the thought of its being disrespected. I have never seen anyone burn a flag. And if I did, it would take every ounce of restraint I had not to haul off and hit them.

But we live in a country of laws. Laws that stop people from resorting to physical violence to settle disagreements. Laws that protect free speech. The primacy of the law is one of the things that protects us, one of the things that makes us great.

When I took this job last year I was asked to swear an oath of office. It is a short, simple oath, and everyone in this Chamber has repeated it. It begins: ``I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.'' Our first allegiance here is not to a political party, or to an ideology, or to a President, or even popular opinion, it is to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

Senator Byrd often talks about the Constitution as a remarkable document that transformed a revolutionary movement to a stable government that has lasted more than 200 years and is the envy of the world. He is right.

The Constitution has only been amended 27 times. The amendments include guarantees of our most basic freedoms, the freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, the protection against cruel punishment. The amendments also chronicle the great struggles of this country. The 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865. The 17th provided for the direct election of senators in 1913. The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. The 24th eliminated the poll tax in 1964.

The Framers established a high bar for amending the Constitution, and for good reason. It is difficult to amend the Constitution because our founding document should not be changed just because of political concerns or temporary problems. The Constitution should only be amended to address our Nation's most pressing problems that can't be solved with legislation. But even the supporters of this amendment are hard pressed to find more than a few instances of flag burning each year.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops risking their lives for their country, looking to us to come up with a plan to win the peace so they can come home. Across America, there are millions who are looking for us to do something about health care, about education, about energy. We are only supposed to be in session for about 50 more days for the rest of this year. To spend the precious time we have left battling an epidemic of flag burning that does not exist is a disservice to our country.

Mr. President, 141 years ago, Congress passed--and the States approved--the 13th amendment to end slavery. A century and a half later, Americans can look back at that effort and be proud. What will Americans 141 years from now think if we pass the 28th amendment to ban flag burning? Will they breathe a sigh of relief that we made the world safe from flag burners? Or will they see this for what it is: an effort to distract, an effort to score political points, an effort to use the same flag that should unite us to instead divide us? I believe they will laugh and shake their heads.

During this debate, we have heard much about Colin Powell's opposition to this amendment. I am moved by his statement that:

I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will still be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.

His view is shared by the many calls and letters I have received from Illinois veterans. All of them full of honest passion, and all of them sharing a common love of flag and country. I want to read a bit from a few of the letters I received.

Richard Savage of Bloomington wrote me:

I am a Vietnam veteran and Republican. ..... Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself.

Marci Daniels from Edwardsville wrote:

I am a veteran and I oppose the flag amendment. I did not put my life on the line for the flag, but for the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees.

Terrence Hutton of Winnetka wrote:

As a Vietnam war veteran, I did not like the steady fare of flag-burnings we seemed to see on TV and in the print media back in those unhappy days, but I accepted them as part of the price we pay as a free society. ..... We have survived this long without a flag-burning provision in the Constitution and can go right on surviving without one.

These are all proud Americans, veterans. They know that we should not play politics with the Constitution. We shouldn't distract voters in an election year, when there are so many common challenges we face and so little time to face them.

There is, in fact, another way. There is a way to balance our respect for the flag with reverence for the Constitution. Senators CLINTON and BENNETT are proposing an amendment to this proposal that would protect the flag without amending the Constitution. Their statutory approach is a new one that doesn't fall into the same constitutional traps that doomed previous flag protection bills. The Clinton-Bennett amendment is narrowly drawn to meet the first amendment tests the Supreme Court has laid out in previous court decisions. It makes it illegal to burn a flag in a threatening way or to incite violence. I believe this statute will pass constitutional muster and be upheld by the Supreme Court.

I will vote for the Clinton-Bennett amendment in an effort to find a way to balance our respect for the flag and our protection of the Constitution. I urge my colleagues to do the same.


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