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House okays amendment 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 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."

Under the constitutional amendment, states would be free to define desecration, a provision to which many Democrats vigorously objected, saying that it could lead to 50 different laws.

Opponents also said that states could come up with varying definitions of what constitutes a flag, such as whether flags depicted on clothes, posters or buttons also would be protected by desecration law.

Rep. Charles Canady, R-Lakeland, the measure's floor manager, said the flag is "a national asset which deserves protection from physical desecration."

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

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it has strong support and is likely to be voted on next month. If it wins a two-thirds majority there, it must then be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states. No presidential action is needed.

Fairly rapid approval by the states seems all but certain, since veterans groups choreographed resolutions from 49 state legislatures _ all but Vermont _ asking Congress to pass the wording approved Wednesday.

Opponents argued that destruction of the flag was exactly the kind of unpopular speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect. They also questioned the need for such an amendment when there were only 45 cases of flag burning reported between 1777 and 1989 and fewer than 10 a year since then.

The Constitution was last amended in 1992 to prevent Congress from granting itself an immediate pay raise.

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 and Knight-Ridder Newspapers 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.