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House acts to abolish flag-burning

In fevered tones, the House of Representatives has asserted its devotion to Old Glory and voted for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and the states to make it a crime to desecrate the American flag.

"If you need to burn something, burn your congressman in effigy," Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., exhorted on the House floor Wednesday. "But don't burn the flag."

The vote in support was 312-120, with 93 Democrats joining 219 Republicans to surpass the two-thirds majority, or 280 votes, needed to amend the Constitution. Twelve Republicans joined 107 Democrats and one independent in opposition.

The proposed amendment still must be approved by the Senate and ratified by the states.

"It makes me sick to see anyone burn the flag," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "But the Bill of Rights protects that (act). We must not choose the symbol over the real thing."

The House-passed constitutional amendment is just 21 words long. It states:

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

Even supporters acknowledge that flag burning is not a widespread problem. A congressional study found just six documented cases last year.

The amendment is the Republican majority's response to Supreme Court rulings in 1989 and 1990 that struck down federal and state statutes prohibiting flag desecration, holding that those laws infringed upon one's right to free speech and expression under the First Amendment.

Since then, 49 state legislatures _ Vermont being the exception _ have called on Congress to submit to them a flag amendment.

The proposed amendment must be ratified by three-fourths _ 38 _ of the states, which would be free to define desecration. Democrats say that provision could lead to 50 different laws.

But before state legislatures can get at a crack at it, the measure also must pass the Senate by a two-thirds majority.

Democrats Sam Gibbons, Alcee Hastings, Harry Johnston and Carrie Meek were the only members of Florida's House delegation to vote against it.

Cuban-born Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said the amendment presented a chance to validate the nation's ethnic diversity.

"Precisely because we are such a diverse nation, the symbol of our national unity deserves protection," he said. "There certainly should be no (court-dictated) bar to such protection."

But Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., ridiculed the vague language of the amendment, pulling from a large cardboard box several items _ ranging from plates and pantyhose to slippers and boxer shorts _ bearing the stars and stripes.

"Americans love and respect our flag," Ackerman said, "but we don't want to worship it. It's not a religious relic that, once destroyed, exists no more. . . . You cannot destroy a symbol unless you destroy that which it represents."

_ Information from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder Newspapers and the San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.

How they voted

Here is how the Florida delegation voted:

Republicans: Bilirakis, Y; Canady, Y; Diaz-Balart, Y; Fowler, Y; Goss, Y; Foley, Y; McCollum, Y; Mica, Y; Miller, Y; Ros-Lehtinen, Y; Scarborough, Y; Shaw, Y; Stearns, Y; Weldon, Y; Young, Y.

Democrats: Brown, Y; Deutsch, Y; Gibbons, N; Hastings, N; Johnston, N; Meek, N; Peterson, Y; Thurman, Y.