In my teenage years_ I was an Ea

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In my teenage years_ I was an Ea Powered By Docstoc
					In my teenage years, I was an Eagle Scout, in Troop
127, Muscatine, Iowa, the second-oldest Boy Scout
troop in the Illowa Council, started by my
grandfather. Later I was a Boy Scout camp
counselor and a Scoutmaster for two years. Among
other things, I learned a lot about flag etiquette,
from how to fold the flag into a neat, starry triangle,
to the proper way to hoist, display, and lower the
flag. I knew how to salute the flag when wearing a
uniform and when not wearing one. I knew reveille,
retreat, taps, and the Pledge of Allegiance by heart. I
knew about the U.S. Flag Code, a voluntary set of
guidelines dating back to 1923, and I was careful
never to let a flag touch the ground.

Troop 127 met in the Methodist Church I attended
throughout my childhood, and every Sunday a U.S.
flag stood to the speaker’s right, part of the standard
decor of the church. It just seemed normal; I never
questioned why it was there.
We always flew a flag at our house on Flag Day and
the Fourth of July, and on many other days as well.
This is the season for flags, and you still see a lot of
them this time of year, just about anywhere you go
in the United States. After September 11, 2001, it
seemed that there were flags or flag images
everywhere. That has abated a little since then, but
the Stars and Stripes are as popular as ever as a
symbol of our nation and our national ideals.

Occasionally, the flag has been used in protest, such
as flag burnings during the Vietnam War. The
Supreme Court upheld such protests as protected
symbolic speech in 1989, overturning a mix of
previous flag laws. Last week, the U.S. Senate set
aside time to debate whether there should be a
constitutional amendment to allow Congress to ban
physical desecration of the flag of the United States.
The flag amendment has been a favorite issue of
some veterans’ groups, and this year it appeared to
have the best chance ever of passing the Senate. It
had already passed the House of Representatives,
and with all fifty state legislatures having passed
resolutions in favor of the amendment, it would
undoubtedly be ratified quickly if it could get 67
votes in the Senate.

The Flag Desecration Amendment got 66 votes in
the Senate, missing by just one vote. But I wasn’t
sorry to see it fail. In fact, I was enormously
relieved. I have plenty of respect for the flag of the
United States. But the proposed amendment does
not honor—and would not protect—the flag. At first
glance, the amendment may seem reasonable or at
least harmless. But dig a little deeper, and it gets a
lot uglier than flag burning.

I will admit that the Flag Desecration Amendment is
one of my pet peeves. I spent a fair amount of time
working against it last month, not because it is an
especially important issue–there are hundreds of far
more important issues facing our country–but
because it threatened things that do matter, most
notably the Constitution of the United States, for no
good reason at all. I can think of no other example
that illustrates so well the difference between
substance and symbol, between reality and
appearance, between what really matters and what
does not. As Unitarian Universalists committed to a
free and responsible search for truth and meaning,
we ought to care about such differences, and seek to
land on the side of what is genuine, not what is
expedient or superficially attractive.

Imagine, for a moment, that the Flag Desecration
Amendment had passed. That isn’t hard to do,
because it only needed one more vote. Without a
doubt, the first thing that would happen is that we
would see a dramatic increase in flag burnings. The
First Amendment Foundation predicted this, and I
saw several internet postings just last week from
people who said this is exactly what they would do.
I think most supporters of the amendment knew this,
which puts the lie to any idea that the purpose of the
amendment was to protect flags or to put a stop to
flag burning. Of course, it’s hard to put a stop to
something that hardly ever happens; in a nation of
300 million people there are typically less than half
a dozen protest burnings a year. That number could
only go up, and it would.

These new flag burnings would provoke divided
reactions and bickering among those who opposed
the amendment, but supporters would express
outrage and would demand quick ratification so new
federal laws could be passed. Ratification would
proceed rapidly in the next few months, and the
process would provide a huge distraction from more
important issues such as corruption, voting rights,
debt, poverty, health care, the environment, energy
policy, and the occupation of Iraq. Across the
nation, state legislators who opposed ratification
would run the risk of being labeled unpatriotic and
in favor of flag burning. In less than a year, the
amendment would be part of the Constitution.
And what does the amendment say? "The Congress
shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration
of the flag of the United States." Sounds simple
enough, but putting it into practice is another matter.
A lengthy debate in Congress would ensue about
just how to prohibit desecration of the flag and
punish all those flag burners.

It might seem that the simplest option would be just
to criminalize burning the U.S. flag. But there is a
big problem with this approach. According to the
U.S. Flag Code, when an old flag is no longer fit for
display, it should be "destroyed in a dignified way,
preferably by burning." That’s exactly what the Flag
Code says, and in fact, in my Boy Scout days, I
participated in ceremonies to retire an old flag by
burning. The difference between that and a protest
burning is not in what physically happens to the
flag. The difference is in the words and the intent of
the people who carry out the act. This distinction
gives the lie to the idea that this amendment has
nothing to do with speech or political protest, only
physical protection of the flag. It is very much about
speech and protest, especially peaceful protest or
political art, since incitement to violence can already
be prohibited. It may be offensive speech to many,
but that is the kind that is most important to protect
if freedom of speech means anything. Our country is
not so fragile that it can’t survive this kind of free
speech. But our rights to free speech are fragile
enough that they may not survive an assault on the

Any law Congress passed against flag burning
would undoubtedly contain an exception for retiring
old flags by burning. And here is one of the ironies
of this amendment. The one form of so-called
"desecration" that Congress might not be able to
ban, even with this amendment, is flag burning.
Unless Congress is willing to ban physical burning
of the flag in all cases, including retirement
ceremonies, the Supreme Court might still find the
law unconstitutional for the same reasons that it did
On the other hand, there is a more dangerous
possibility. The courts might uphold the law,
allowing speech and intent to be the deciding factors
in flag desecration. In that case, the flag amendment
would overrule portions of the First Amendment and
the Bill of Rights. It would be a logical but
frightening conclusion for the courts to decide that
the real meaning and intent of the flag amendment is
to limit protest or dissent against the nation or
government symbolized by the flag.

Now, when I was growing up, I was told many
times that one of the differences between the United
States and the Soviet Union is that we were free to
criticize our government, while they would put you
in jail for that kind of protest. Do we now want to
become like our former enemies? Banning flag
desecration would put us in the company of
totalitarian states such as Iran, Cuba, and Iraq under
Saddam Hussein that have punished their own
people for desecrating their flags.
One of the problems with the flag amendment is that
it is not a flag burning amendment–it is a flag
desecration amendment, and no one knows what
"desecration" would mean. The word "desecration"
has troubling religious implications, because it
implies that the flag would become sacred, with
official status above all other religious symbols. In
many religious traditions, this is nothing but

Even aside from that problem, it isn’t clear whether
acts such as wearing a flag t-shirt, putting a flag
sticker on your car (where it might get splattered
with mud), or making a Stars and Stripes cake for
the Fourth of July are acts of patriotism or of flag
desecration. If it chose to do so, Congress would
have the power to ban or punish any number of
physical acts as "desecration," from printing flags on
clothing or advertising to improperly displaying a
flag, physically showing disrespect for the flag,
throwing a flag in the trash, or damaging a flag in
any way. One option would be to define
"desecration" as any physical act violating the U.S.
Flag Code, turning that document from a voluntary
guide into a mandatory requirement.

In that case, you’d better be sure that you never
leave a flag out after sunset without a light shining
on it, or out in the rain unless it is an all-weather
flag. Don’t let a flag touch the ground, don’t display
it the wrong way, and don’t do anything that would
let it be damaged. Don’t use flag napkins on the
Fourth of July, be careful with those little plastic
flags, and watch what you throw in the trash. If this
amendment passed, I don’t think I would want to
own a flag in any form if I could help it. Selectively
enforced, a broad flag desecration law could become
a powerful and sinister tool for a government to
target its perceived enemies or political foes. Since
flags and flag images are everywhere, anyone could
be vulnerable.

I don’t really believe that most supporters of the flag
amendment intend for it to be used in such extreme
or oppressive ways, but it would give all future
Congresses exactly that power. In the current
climate of our nation, we don’t need anything that
will move us any further down the path toward a
repressive totalitarian state.

By the way, another provision of the U.S. Flag Code
is that it can be modified at any time by
proclamation of the Commander-in-Chief. Our
current President would have to hurry to modify the
portion of the Flag Code that prohibits marking or
writing on flags, since there are widely-distributed
photographs of the President violating the Flag Code
by autographing flags for his supporters.

Even if none of the worst-case scenarios under this
amendment were to occur, it would still be a
nightmare to interpret and enforce. Ironically, one of
the biggest problems would be how to define the
word "flag."
After all, what really is a flag? Does it matter what it
is made of, how big it is, or who made it? How
closely does it have to follow the official pattern,
colors and dimensions of the flag? The early flag
desecration laws in many states that were found
unconstitutional generally used a broad definition of
"flag", including anything that resembled a flag or
that might be thought by an observer to be a flag.
This would mean a flag stamp, a virtual image of a
flag on a computer screen, or a child’s drawing of a
flag would be a flag. Congress might start with a
narrow definition of an official U.S. flag, but then it
would be easy to burn or trample on flags that
deviate in some way from that definition. This
would surely happen, and there would be repeated
pressure to broaden the definition and tighten
enforcement. Debates over the meaning of this ill-
conceived amendment could take decades to
resolve, and no one knows where it would come out
in the end.
Along the way, the amendment could have other
unintended consequences, such as implications for
property rights. It is already illegal to vandalize
flags that are public property or that belong to other
people, so this is about restricting the use of
personal property. Supporters of the amendment
often compare flag desecration to vandalizing a
national monument, but that is a ridiculous
comparison. No one physical flag is THE flag of the
United States. National monuments are unique,
irreplaceable, publicly owned, and generally very
costly. There are millions of flags, which are easily
replaced at little cost. And you can privately own a
flag. If you could personally buy a national
monument, it probably wouldn’t be vandalism to
spray paint on it, because it would be your own
property. Whatever you think of private property
rights, the flag amendment would intrude on them.
The only other alternative would be to declare all
flags to be public property, but this could have some
bizarre consequences, such as turning anything into
government property if you draw a flag on it.
The Flag Desecration Amendment is pointless at
best, and very dangerous to the Constitution and our
political freedoms at worst. Amending the Bill of
Rights for the first time would not be a return to a
previous status quo; it would be a totally
unnecessary reversal of the trajectory toward
broader rights and freedoms that the Constitution
has been on for over 200 years. We did just fine
without flag desecration laws of any kind for the
first 120 years of our nation’s history, and without a
federal law until 1968. So why did the amendment
pass the House of Representatives and get 66 votes
last week in the Senate? I can’t think of a single
good reason for supporting this amendment beyond
simplistic gut reactions or political pandering and
grandstanding, using the flag for perceived political
gain. What could desecrate the flag more than that?

Supporters claimed to be honoring veterans, but
veterans are far from united on this issue. Thousands
of veterans have spoken out against this amendment,
such as John Rutherford, a veteran wounded in
combat in World War II. He wrote, "The veterans of
the Revolutionary War fought to overthrow tyranny
and establish freedom. They did not fight to protect
a piece of cloth which merely symbolizes our free
nation.... The flag desecration amendment would
only dishonor our ancestors' struggle for freedom of
speech by abridging that freedom."

Supporters of the amendment played on emotions
and put the symbol of the flag ahead of the
substance of the Constitutional freedom that it
represents. Congress has done this kind of this
before, from using Terry Shiavo as a political
symbol instead of respecting the reality of her
condition, to putting nice-sounding names on nasty
laws, or claiming that a trillion dollar tax break for
the heirs of enormously wealthy estates is designed
to save small family farms. We need substantive
solutions to real problems, not misleading words
and emotional manipulation.
If we really want to honor the flag, we should
protect the U.S. Constitution from political
pandering and opportunism. (That means protecting
it from a discriminatory marriage amendment, too.)
If we really want to honor the flag, we should make
sure that no one is sent to fight for our flag or
country unless the cause is clear and just. If we
really want to honor the flag, we should strive to
bring to reality the final words of the Pledge of
Allegiance: "Liberty and Justice for All."

This is the substance of real patriotism. It is also the
substance of the core of Unitarian Univeralism. We
should not be afraid to let the light shine of genuine
patriotism that flows from our faith. Our principles
proclaim our commitment to liberty, justice, and
democracy. We are as authentically American in our
roots as any faith tradition, heirs of patriots from
Thomas Jefferson to Susan B. Anthony. We honor
separation of church and state, another very
American concept, in part by not routinely
displaying a flag next to the pulpit. But we are free
to speak our minds on issues that are informed by
our values and principles. In fact, we need to speak
out when liberty and democracy are under threat, as
they are in our nation right now. The rights of
conscience and the rights of protest and dissent are
as authentically American as anything, and there is
nothing patriotic about curtailing them in the name
of the flag.

So fly the flag if you wish with pride this Fourth of
July, and without fear that you might do it wrong.
Let a thousand flags fly! There is no need to worry
about what happens to every one of them--the fate
of our nation does not depend on any one physical
flag. Following proper flag etiquette is good, but
whatever respect we show to the flag is meaningful
precisely because it is voluntary and motivated by
respect, not by legal sanction. Forced patriotism is
no patriotism at all. We will probably have to face
votes on the flag amendment again in the future, but
for now we can be glad that just enough of our
elected leaders had the courage to defeat it. Perhaps
now we can turn our attention to the substance of
democracy, freedom and justice, which is what
gives the flag its meaning in the first place.

May it be so.
On this Sunday before the Fourth of July, we pause
prayerfully in gratitude for freedom and democracy,
and for all those who have worked, sacrificed,
fought and died for democracy, liberty and justice.


Let us be thankful that we have this opportunity to
gather with one another, to welcome and care for
each another, in good times and in difficult or
painful times in our lives. There is so much joy and
sorrow just within this room, from longing for a
better world, to personal triumphs and tragedies that
consume all our waking moments. In compassion,
we reach out both to the world and to one another.

This Sunday, as a community, we hold especially in
our hearts:
We celebrate with:

We embrace as a community all of our joys and
sorrows and concerns, both those that are spoken,
and those that are held silently in our hearts In the
name of all that is beautiful and good and true we
pray, Amen.
The freedom to gather with one another is blessed
indeed! From wherever we have come, and
wherever we may be going next, let us pause
together now and center our hearts in silence.

It is time for our offering, both sign and substance of
our commitment to this congregation and to the
beacon of Unitarian Universalism. If you are
visiting us for the first or second time, you are
welcome to let the plate pass, for we honor you as a
guest today.

Let us celebrate and honor our nation’s flag by
guarding with diligence the liberty, justice and
rights of democracy that it represents. Go forth into
the world in peace.

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