MANCHESTER, N.H. — Breaking with most of his Democratic rivals, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark says he favors amending the Constitution to criminalize flag-burning.
Lawmakers have debated the amendment almost annually since 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that flag-burning was a protected free-speech right.
In June, the Republican-controlled House approved a one-line change to the Constitution — "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States" — for the fifth time in eight years. The Senate has not passed the legislation.
Speaking at an American Legion hall on Veterans Day, Clark said he agrees with the amendment, though he cautioned that true patriotism involves more than respecting symbols.
"I'm in favor of the American flag amendment, but as I travel around the country what I see is a new spirit of patriotism, and it goes a long way beyond the American flag," he said. "It's not just the American flag, it's the idea that even in a time of war, the right thing to do is bring your ideas in, and no administration can ever say if you disagree with it that you're not being patriotic."
Among the Democratic presidential hopefuls in Congress, Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards have opposed the amendment. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rep. Dick Gephardt have supported it.
Supporters argue that burning Old Glory shows disrespect for America, and that a majority of Americans approve of legal protection for the flag. But many opponents say the legislation would limit free-speech rights.
"Our country is defined by the rights we protect and those of us who fought for freedom and put our lives on the line defended the right of people to do things that we disagree with," Kerry said yesterday. "As I've said before, if I saw someone burning the flag, I'd punch them in the mouth because I love the flag, but the Constitution that I fought for preserves the right of free expression."
Both Clark and Kerry have touted their military records to attract veterans to their campaigns. But the flag issue was a turning point for Ernie Jones, an Army veteran from Manchester who said on Nov. 10 that he was switching his support from Kerry to Clark.
Jones, an independent who has voted Republican in the past, said military experience is essential given the dangers America faces.
"I look at that as Number 1 because we have to right now," he said.