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Hatch panel salutes his flag amendment

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Normally, Senate committees hold hearings on legislation before they pass it.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, held an after-the-fact hearing Wednesday to salute his proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, which he already waved through his committee last month.That set the stage for increasing grass-roots lobbying by veterans groups and others pushing for a full Senate vote on the amendment - which Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott has said likely would be allowed before the Senate adjourns this year.

Hatch brought in about every possible type of emotional American symbol, except maybe apple pie, to call for better flag protection, including a baseball team manager, a patriotic actor/singer, a Medal of Honor winner and everyday people.

Tommy Lasorda, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, described what he considers one of the greatest baseball highlights he ever saw - rescuing a burning flag from protesters.

It happened in a 1976 game between the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs, when protesters ran into the outfield of Dodger stadium and ignited a flag.

"To the astonishment of the protesters, the fans and those of us on the field, all-star outfielder Rick Monday ran at the protesters, grabbed the burning flag and ran toward the dugout as I screamed at the protesters from the third-base coaching box," he said.

"Without any prompting that I can remember, the whole crowd stood and began to fill the stadium with an impromptu rendition of `God Bless America,' " Lasorda said.

He added, "I am reminded that one of the greatest things we can teach the children of tomorrow - respect for God and country - is getting more and more difficult to pass on. One of the best ways we can teach this respect is by protecting our flag from physical desecration."

Gary G. Wetzel, a Medal of Honor winner, complained about last week's Wisconsin court decision saying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced it to find that a man who took down a flag at a golf course, defecated on it and left it on the club house steps was only exercising his freedom of speech.

"I sometimes wonder if our judges have fallen out of step with the citizens of this country, who perhaps have less difficulty recognizing the difference between words and waste," he said.

TV actor/singer John Schneider - who has recorded a song Hatch wrote, entitled, "I Love Old Glory" - said, "What we are dealing with is an issue of basic American values - right versus wrong."

He added, "Flag desecrators go beyond the bounds of decency and civility. They are no longer fellow citizens expressing opinions, but violent thieves attempting to steal our nation's soul."

Sean Stephenson, a 19-year-old DePaul University student brought to represent his generation of youth, said, "If we don't regard anything as sacred, our citizens will never learn to respect what they have."

Hatch himself also said it is proper to protect the flag - and that such action would not infringe on other's First Amendment right of free speech.

"If burning the flag were the only means of expressing dissatisfaction with the nation's policies, then I too might oppose this amendment," he said. "Those who wish to express their political opinions may do so in the media, in newspaper editorials, in peaceful demonstrations and through their power to vote."

Disagreeing was Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice - who said flag desecration is more powerful than words to convey political dissent.

"To the freedom fighters in Tiananmen Square or Havana or North Korea, a raised fist, a desecrated flag or other acts of `slander against the state' could mean arrest. . . . that's what totalitarianism is all about," he said.

"In America, such acts of symbolic political dissent are tolerated even if they are widely reviled. Our nation and its symbols speak for themselves, and they speak for freedom," he said.

The House passed the amendment 310-114 last year. If a two-thirds majority of the Senate also passes it, three-fourths of the state legislatures would have to ratify it to add it to the Constitution.

Hatch has pushed the amendment since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag desecration is a protected form of speech.