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 Constitution. 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 before. 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 idolatry. 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. [Pause] 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.