WASHINGTON -- America's major veterans groups, armed with a new poll and some emotional rhetoric, called on Congress Thursday to act quickly and surely to protect the flag from desecration.
But along with the exhortations from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, a House Judiciary subcommittee heard a former prisoner of war caution lawmakers to not damage the Constitution because of the flag issue. A Medal of Honor winner urged the lawmakers not to rush to action because of popular pressure.
Close by, near the Supreme Court, the atmosphere was more raucous as protesters on both sides of the issue competed for attention.
Several House members, supporters of a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag desecration, walked to the court with fire extinguishers because of speculation that a flag would be burned by the man whose 1984 flag burning in Texas prompted the Supreme Court's ruling on the issue. However, there was no flag burning or confrontation.
Inside the Capitol, the main question facing most lawmakers is not whether to try to reverse the high court's 5-4 decision that flag burning as a political protest is protected free speech, but what route to take.
President Bush has insisted that a constitutional change is needed, although a number of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have suggested that the flag can be protected from desecration simply through a new federal law. A change in the Constitution, many lawmakers argue, could begin to erode First Amendment free speech protections.
However, the American Legion and the VFW, two of the most vocal groups in the flag debate, insisted Thursday that a change in the Constitution was required.
H.F. 'Sparky' Gierke, Legion national commander, said, 'We know in our gut that this is wrong.'
'Surely, neither our founding fathers, nor members of Congress, nor anyone in the history of our republic ever intended that anybody should be allowed to burn the very flag that has been draped on the caskets of those who died to preserve all that it represents,' he said.
Gierke told the panel the initial results of a Gallup Poll done for his organization that found 66 percent of those surveyed favored a constitutional amendment. The survey, taken July 7-17, included 272 respondents and had a 3 percentage point error margin. Gierke contended the partial results were an indicator of what would be shown when the full, 1,000-person sample is available next month.
James Magill of the VFW said, 'All of this nation's veterans have made great sacrifices in defense of the basic American principle of freedom of expression, but freedom of expression can and should co-exist with the sense of reverence for the flag.'
John Heilman of the Disabled American Veterans said he did not care if Congress passed a constitutional amendment or a simple bill, but something must be done.
Ever since the court's June decision, veterans groups have put considerable pressure on Congress to respond to the decision.
But, as expected, the veterans who spoke Thursday were not unanimous.
James Warner, a former Marine flight officer who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5 years, said desecration of the flag caused him 'immeasurable pain,' but the Constitution should not be tampered with because that might harm the First Amendment.
'This little nibble on the First Amendment will not be the end of it,' he said. 'If we take this first step we will not be able to resist the second and the third and the fourth.'
He told the panel he had angered one of his captors, who tried to taunt him with a picture of American protesters burning the flag, by saying such protest proved the United States was strong.
'He flew into a rage. His face was purple,' Warner said. 'But as he was ranting at me, I noticed that in his eyes there was fear.'
Gordon Roberts, a Medal of Honor winner from Oregonia, Ohio, who fought in the Army in Vietnam, urged Congress to exercise caution.
Reminding the lawmakers of the founding fathers, he said: 'They, like you, faced the calls of a population that was anxious for progress and for answers to the concerns this country faced. Yet in the end they resisted the temptation to be hurried.'
By itself, the proposed constitutional amendment would not outlaw flag desecration, but would give that power to Congress and the states. An amendment must be passed by two-thirds of both the House and Senate and then ratified by 38 of the 50 state legislatures.