Published September 17, 2004
WASHINGTON – Flag-burning and the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (search) are about to join gay marriage among the volatile issues that congressional Republicans have pushed to votes ahead of the election to remind the public how the GOP and Democrats differ.
The House is expected to vote next week on a bill that says only state courts can hear cases involving the pledge. As a result, the Supreme Court could not rule on whether "under God" violates the First Amendment (search), which says in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said he also wants a debate and vote on flag-burning (search) before Congress adjourns next month. Lawmakers have debated the flag amendment almost annually since the high court, by a 5-4 decision in 1989, said flag-burning was a form of speech protected by the Constitution.
The Senate Judiciary Committee in July set up the latest vote on the issue, advancing what would be a one-line amendment to the Constitution — "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has also promised a vote this month on President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages (search), even though the idea got only 48 votes to 50 against it in the Senate in July. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities, or 67 votes in the Senate and 290 votes in the House.
In July, the House passed a bill to prevent federal courts from ordering states to recognize same-sex unions sanctioned elsewhere. That vote was 233-194, well short of what's needed to pass a constitutional amendment on the subject.
The two parties hold different sides on all three subjects. With the White House, the Senate and the House — each in Republican control now — on the line Election Day, the GOP is pushing its issues to the forefront in the last seven weeks before Nov. 2.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday forced the pledge bill to the House floor, using a party-line vote. A final vote is expected next week.
Most Republicans believe the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in San Francisco overstepped its bounds in ruling last year that the "under God" language in the pledge was unconstitutional. The Bush administration and many Democrats also have argued that the reference "one nation under God" should remain part of the pledge.
"Integral to the American constitutional system is each branch of the government's responsibility to use its powers to prevent overreaching by the other branches," said House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Democrats say it is obvious what Republicans are just trying to win political points. A March poll by the Associated Press showed that 87 percent of those polled thought "under God" should stay in the pledge.
"It seems that my Republican colleagues have lost sight of our priorities," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat.
"We are a nation at war. The death toll of our men and women fighting for our right to be free from terror has reached record limits and continues to rise every single day. Why then is something so arbitrary and so unnecessary at the top of our list of things to do?"
Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards do not think the Constitution should be amended to add the ban. Kerry missed the Senate vote on the gay marriage amendment but said he was against it.