Desecrating the flag protected by the Constitution

The American Flag is brought onto the field for opening ceremonies of Arlington Martin/DeSoto high school football game last year.
The American Flag is brought onto the field for opening ceremonies of Arlington Martin/DeSoto high school football game last year. Special to the Star-Telegram

The flag of the United States is perhaps this nation’s most powerful symbol, its “Stars and Stripes” having significant meaning that evokes unrelenting pride and a range of sentimental emotions in many Americans.

That waving red-white-and-blue banner over the Capitol dome, its draping over the coffin of a fallen soldier or its slow ascent to the top of a pole during an Olympic medal ceremony are images that few can behold without being moved.

You no doubt can think of many other instances, both personal and public, in which the very sight of that standard has produced chill bumps, lumps in the throat, a skip of the heart beat and even tears.

The sense of patriotism felt in those moments is an experience that citizens of this country hold dear, and believe — maybe arrogantly so — that no one in any other nation could feel the same about their flag.

But no matter how much you revere “Old Glory,” it is still only a symbol. It is not holy. While it may be sacred in your mind, it is just a symbol that is not immune from being dishonored or even desecrated.

That brings me to a Texas law banning flag desecration, which was enacted 25 years ago in an over-reaction to a Supreme Court decision and which embodies an oversensitivity to that endearing symbol.

It is a law that should be declared unconstitutional.

During the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, a demonstrator burned an American flag near City Hall. Gregory Lee Johnson’s act offended many in town and across the nation as the flag-burning images were shown on television.

Johnson was convicted under Texas law and sentenced to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.

In 1989, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that flag desecration was protected under the Constitution as a form of freedom of speech. The decision knocked down statutes in 47 other states with similar laws.

The Texas Legislature quickly passed another law making it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, for anyone who “intentionally or knowingly damages, defaces, mutilates, or burns the flag of the United States or the State of Texas.”

Although it’s not used that much, in 2012 another man named Johnson — Terrence Johnson, 20 — was charged under the act after he pulled a U.S. flag from a sidewalk display in Lovelady (about 100 miles north of Houston) and threw it into the street to protest actions by a racist store clerk, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Passing traffic destroyed the flag.

Terrence Johnson spent more than four weeks in jail before being released on bond, and charges were dismissed by a county court judge six months later after declaring the law unconstitutional.

The Houston County District Attorney’s office appealed, and a state appeals court decided that although the flag desecration law was properly applied in the case, it was a law that is unenforceable, the Statesman reported.

The state appealed again to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which heard oral arguments in October.

The court should deny the state’s claim and throw out this case.

There are other laws that prevent people from burning things in public, or taking other people’s property and destroying it. But, as the Supreme Court already has ruled, desecration of the flag is a right protected under the Constitution.

If it is your flag, you can do anything you want with it, no matter how much it might offend someone who regards the Star-Spangled Banner as a sacred symbol.

Rather than get upset about what someone else may do to the flag, just make sure you honor it in the most fitting way.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

Twitter: @BobRaySanders