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Hatch relaunches amendment to ban desecration of the flag

WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reintroduced Tuesday his long-sought constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, again vowed to fight it.

It renews rare political combat between Utah's two senators. It is one of few issues upon which the two disagree and the only major one where both are leaders of opposing forces.

The House passed the amendment 305-124 in the last Congress. But it fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate, 63-37. Bennett was one of only four Republicans who opposed it last year, while the party pleaded for passage.

Hatch reintroduced the amendment, which is pushed by veterans groups, as the American Legion gathered in Washington for spring meetings. That took advantage of the extra lobbying push for it that such large groups may provide.

"It is time for us to make unequivocally clear that certain behavior in this country is and should be recognized as wrong and punishable by law," Hatch said at a Capitol press conference.

"Standing up for the flag will send a strong message that there are common values and ideals in America — ideals worth fighting for and protecting. . . . (It) is a step toward re-orienting our moral compass," Hatch said.

Meanwhile, Bennett's press secretary, Mary Jane Collipriest, said, "Sen. Bennett remains strongly opposed to flag burning. But in turn, he opposes tinkering with the Constitution to achieve something he believes we can do statutorily." As Bennett said last year, "We don't need to amend the Constitution . . . (to ensure) proper flag etiquette."

He also said protecting the flag is possible "without leaving behind a symbol of overreaction in the Constitution itself." Hatch has said it is impossible to protect the flag by simple statute because Congress tried that in 1989, but the Supreme Court later ruled it was an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech.

However, Bennett said a new, reworked bill that he and others are pushing would likely pass constitutional muster according to experts who have reviewed it.

Hatch was joined by several veterans' groups and famous ex-soldiers serving in Congress when he launched the amendment Tuesday.

Sen. Max Clelland, D-Ga., who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam, said, "Parents have lost their children for this flag. Wives have lost their husbands. Congress should protect it." American Legion National Commander Ray G. Smith said, "What we have here is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue; this is an American issue." Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., a much-decorated Vietnam War pilot, said, "The American flag is a national treasure. It is the ultimate symbol of freedom, equal opportunity and religious tolerance. Amending our Constitution to protect the flag is a necessity."

Hatch faces an uphill battle in this Congress because several supporters of his amendment lost re-election last year, and the Senate is now evenly split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

A constitutional amendment must pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote and be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.