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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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WebQuest: Should the United States Enact a Constitutional Amendment to Prohibit Flag Burning?

Introduction

Did you know that the proper method of destroying or "retiring" a flag that is worn out or soiled is to burn it? Boy Scouts and American Legion groups regularly perform such ceremonies. However, ordinary citizens who have burned flags for other reasons, such as political protest, have often been subject to arrest in this country. This is because many states, including Texas, have laws making it a crime to burn or desecrate the flag. In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson was arrested for burning a flag during protest outside the Republican National Convention in Texas. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States. In the 5 to 4 ruling the Court explained that what Johnson did is a form of speech that is protected by the First Amendment. 

Question/Task

In response to this decision, flag supporters have tried to pass a Constitutional amendment to protect the flag or prohibit flag burning. A proposed constitutional amendment needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and be approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Since the Supreme Court ruling, the House has approved flag amendments in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001, and 2005, all with the necessary 2/3 majority. The Senate, in votes in 1995 and 2000, came up with only 63 votes, four short of the two-thirds majority needed.  In 2006, the Senate was only one vote short of the 67 needed.

And so the debate continues, with proponents likely to continue raising the issue. As a recently elected U.S. Senator, you will be asked to vote on this issue, which is very important to many of your constituents. Before voting, you must learn about the arguments on both sides and make an informed decision. Then you will vote on this issue: Should the United States enact a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning? 

Background for Everyone

Read the CNN article High court rulings led to quest for flag-burning amendment.

Process

  1. Your teacher will assign you one of the base groups listed below. You and the other members of your group will read at least two of the articles that have been assigned to your base group.

    1. Citizens Flag Alliance (CFA), an organization founded by the American Legion and other like-minded groups

    2. Veterans groups for the Amendment

    3. Politicians for the Amendment

    4. Civil Liberties Organizations (American Civil Liberties Union/ACLU and the First Amendment Center)

    5. Individual veterans against the Amendment

    6. Politicians against the Amendment

  2. When all members of the group have finished reading, work together to complete Student Handout #1. Fill in the information regarding the position of your base group.
  3. Students will form jigsaw groups so they are working with one person from each of the other base groups. Each person in the jigsaw group will share his or her findings from the initial reading. All members of the jigsaw group will listen and use this new information to complete Student Handout #2.

  4. The jigsaw group will identify the strongest arguments for and against the amendment to prohibit flag burning and discuss them.

  5. Each individual will reflect on the arguments and make a decision regarding whether he or she is for or against the amendment to prohibit flag burning.

  6. The U.S. Senate, which is composed of all members of the class, will convene and debate the issue. Then they will vote to see if the amendment passes.

Real World Feedback

Since it is possible that the U.S. Senate will be voting on this in the future, write a letter to your Senator expressing your viewpoint on the question, "Should the United States enact a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning?" In your letter, be sure to state your position clearly and provide arguments that support your position.

Conclusion

  1. Should the U.S. Constitution be changed if the majority of people believe it should be? Why or why not?

  2. What is the likelihood that an amendment will be passed in the future?

  3. Is writing a letter an effective way to influence the process? What are some other ways that citizens can be involved in the amendment process?

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