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Vermont Legislature passes flag resolution after decade of debate

By The Associated Press


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MONTPELIER, Vt. — A decade of emotional debate over whether and how the U.S. flag should be protected ended in the Legislature yesterday with a pair of votes in the House and Senate.

To be sure, there still were high emotions as a compromise resolution calling on Congress to take action was debated.

That included a moving tribute by state Sen. John Bloomer to his late father, who died en route to the Senate seven years ago yesterday. "This is an issue that was near and dear to my father," said Bloomer as his mother, state Rep. Judy Crowley, R-West Rutland, sat behind him. The late Sen. John Bloomer was a Korean War veteran.

But much of the passion the issue has aroused in the past seemed to have passed. Instead, nearly everyone who spoke on the issue took pains to pay respect to opposing points of view.

"I will assure anyone who votes no (that) I respect your opinion, I respect your vote," said Bloomer, R-Rutland.

In the end, the language of the resolution was open to interpretation and allowed people on both sides to claim victory.

"What this resolution does is call for Congress to take all steps to protect the flag, including a constitutional amendment or a statutory change," said state Rep. Peg Flory, R-Pittsford, one of the negotiators who worked out the compromise.

But the mere mention in the resolution of amending the U.S. Constitution was enough to draw opposition from those who fear such a change would erode constitutionally protected free-speech rights.

"I can't support legislation that would encourage the abridgment of the right of free speech as contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," said state Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury. "Abridging this freedom is desecration of the flag."

Still, for all the furor and debate the resolution has provoked over the years, it does nothing except tell Vermont's congressional delegation that the state Legislature believes federal action needs to be taken.

"The important thing to me, personally, was we said to Congress, 'You decide. We think this is an important issue. Here are the choices,'" said state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington.

Vermont's congressional delegation already has decided. U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders all oppose amending the Constitution on flag protection.

Even if an amendment were adopted in Congress, it would come back to state legislatures across the nation for a ratification vote.

Throughout the tortured history of the Vermont flag resolution, though, the debate has been conducted as if the U.S. Constitution were being amended by the action of the Vermont Legislature.

State Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, is one of the staunchest opponents of the resolution and he sought in a long speech to persuade his colleagues not to support the resolution.

"We're considering a resolution that asks Congress to repeal a portion of the First Amendment," he said. "I find it offensive that people show disrespect for the First Amendment."

Congress twice passed laws in the 1980s outlawing flag burning or other desecrations. But both times the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the laws unconstitutional violations of free speech.

So opponents have argued ever since that amending the Constitution also would abridge free-speech rights. Vermont remained the only state whose Legislature had not acted on the issue. Maine is the only state that did not explicitly seek a constitutional amendment.

Vermont was "brought into the fold," in the words of state Sen. Julius Canns, R-Caledonia, when the House voted 113-23 and the Senate voted 22-6 in favor of the resolution.

Even with that issue out of the way, lawmakers face several more emotional issues related to the First Amendment.

Another resolution that's been introduced would encourage Vermont schoolchildren to recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag each day. A separate bill introduced in the House would require a daily recitation of the pledge in every public school. And another bill introduced yesterday would require a "brief devotional prayer" to be recited at the start of every school day.


The Flag Desecration Amendment (2001)
Information on the debate over flag desecration, political expression and the First Amendment.  03.21.01

House approves flag amendment for fourth time in 6 years
But ACLU, other opponents say vote shows diminished support for efforts to alter Constitution to prevent desecration of national symbol.  07.18.01

Veterans renew call for flag-protection amendment
U.S. flag is a sacred symbol, and 'we think it's even more special after 9-11 than ever in the history of the country,' says South Carolina veteran.  09.28.02

Maine lawmaker proposes repeal of sales tax on U.S. flags
But bill would require flag-burners to return tax savings to the state, mandate that their names be published in newspapers.  02.07.03