The Separation of Church & State Defended: Selected Writings of James E. Wood, Jr.

By Derek H. Davis; James E. Wood Jr. | Go to book overview

Making a Nation's Flag a Sacred Symbol

O n 21 June 1989, the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four in Texas v. Johnson, sided with the courts of Texas in ruling that the defendant's act of burning the American flag during a protest rally was an act of political expression protected by the First Amendment. "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment," Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the majority, "it is that Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable," even where the American flag is involved.

The response to the Court's decision was immediate and overwhelmingly vociferous in its denunciation of the Court's decision. Joining in the chorus led by President George C. Bush were many members of Congress of both parties, many veterans' organizations, and editorials in many newspapers and periodicals, including the editor of The Christian Century. President Bush almost immediately after the Court's decision proposed a constitutional amendment to the Bill of Rights which would read: "The Congress and the states shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." Still others, including some leading members of the Congress, proposed that the Court's decision be overturned by a statute that would explicitly prohibit any form of physical "desecration" of the flag. More than fifty resolutions relating to flag burning were introduced in the Congress. The Court's decision provoked a highly emotional controversy, made all the more so by those who saw the American flag as a sacred symbol of America's nationhood.

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