When an overzealous homeowners association ordered retired Army Col. Van Barfoot, a Medal of Honor recipient, to stop displaying a U.S. flag on his property last fall, the public response was deafening. Blog sites, such as The American Legion's Burn Pit, overflowed with comments from outraged readers. Friends of Barfoot started a Facebook page in support of his right to display the flag; the effort soon had nearly 63,000 fans. Letters to the editor poured in. National media picked up on it. Finally, under nothing more than pressure from the people, the association decided to drop the matter. Disturbing as the incident was, this can happen, and does happen, across the United States.
The whole phenonemon strikes me as ironic. A ban can be imposed against a war hero who wants to fly the flag of our country over his own property, but there can be no such ban on desecrating the sacred symbol of our freedom. "Sorry, Mr. Veteran, you're not allowed to fly the flag on your private property, but the Constitution says you can urinate on it, spit on it and burn it all you want."
For the past 21 years, dating back to the Supreme Court's flawed 5-4 Texas v. Johnson decision, The American Legion has been fighting to end that irony. By a margin of one justice's vote, flag-protection laws enacted by 48 states and the federal government were invalidated.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist usually voted differently, but they were both right about flag desecration.
"In my considered judgment, sanctioning the public desecration of the flag will tarnish its value, both for those who cherish the ideals for which it waves and for those who desire to don the robes of martyrdom by burning it," Stevens wrote. "That tarnish is not justified by the trivial burden on free expression occasioned by requiring that an available, alternative mode of expression - including uttering words critical of the flag - be employed."
Rehnquist: "I cannot agree that the First Amendment invalidates the act of Congress, and the laws of 48 of the 50 states, which make criminal the burning of the flag."
Fortunately, we can do something about this. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives that would allow for a narrowly drawn constitutional amendment that would return to the people the right to protect Old Glory. It simply says, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
Flag-protection amendments have passed the House six times, only to fall short of the necessary two-thirds supermajority required in the Senate by the narrowest of margins. It is true that most Americans - and all 50 state legislatures - agree that our flag is worth protecting. That is why The American Legion continues to fight on Old Glory's behalf, and always will.
Please join me today in contacting your congressional representatives to seek their support for House Joint Resolution 47 and Senate Joint Resolution 15. The number is toll-free: (877) 762-8762.