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Support Cooling for Flag-Burning Amendment

Support Cooling for Flag-Burning Amendment

by Heather Mason Kiefer

The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.

These 17 words, the text of the proposed constitutional amendment to make flag desecration illegal in the United States, have generated considerable controversy in recent weeks. On June 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the proposed amendment, and the Senate may yet debate it this session.

After several failed attempts over the years, many observers believe the amendment -- which needs at least 66 votes in the Senate and must be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures -- may pass this time around. However, a June 24-26 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll* shows only slightly more than half of Americans -- 55% -- favor "a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and state governments to make it illegal to burn the American flag." Thus, there isn't a large groundswell of public support for such constitutional protections for the flag.

Many free speech advocates passionately argue that flag burning -- no matter how distasteful it may be to some -- is a right that the U.S. Constitution should continue to protect. The poll reveals 42% of Americans would side with these free speech advocates, opposing an amendment that would make flag burning illegal.

Prior Gallup polling on this issue suggests support for a ban on flag burning has eroded since the late 1980s and 1990s.

Gallup first asked about flag burning in June 1989, right after a landmark Supreme Court decision, Texas v. Johnson, overturned a Texas anti-flag desecration law, and hence declared such laws unconstitutional. At that time, 71% of Americans wanted to pass "a constitutional amendment to make flag burning illegal" -- the highest level of support Gallup has measured to date. Two other Gallup Polls conducted in 1989 and 1990 found about two-thirds of Americans expressing support for a flag-burning amendment.

Five years later, lawmakers reintroduced the flag-burning amendment, and it passed the House, but failed in the Senate. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted July 7-9, 1995, showed 62% of Americans in favor of an amendment to make flag burning illegal, while 27% were opposed. In June 1999, during another unsuccessful attempt to amend the Constitution, opinion was unchanged, as 63% of Americans favored the amendment.

Surprisingly, despite the unprecedented outpouring of patriotism in the weeks and months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (much of which was documented by Gallup Poll findings), support for a flag-burning amendment has not increased since the mid-1990s. In fact, it has even flagged somewhat.

Minorities, Liberals Oppose Amendment

Support for a flag-burning amendment varies greatly across the ideological spectrum. Two-thirds of conservatives favor the amendment, nearly double the support among liberals (35%). A majority of moderates (57%) say they favor the amendment.

The data also suggest some differences according to race -- 54% of nonwhite Americans oppose an amendment, while 43% of nonwhites are in favor.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 24-26, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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