An issue - but not exactly a burning issue



About two in three Americans fly the flag. Nearly three in four say flag burning should be illegal. Roughly half say it should be unconstitutional.

But despite these protective instincts, there's been no public clamor demanding that Congress take steps to defend Old Glory against desecrators.

These mixed feelings were reflected in the U.S. Senate's defeat last week of a proposed constitutional amendment barring the desecration of the American flag, the latest chapter in a decades-old legal and political debate over the flag.

In a nationwide Fox News survey last month, flag-burning ranked a distant last among five issues tested as priorities for Congress this summer. Iraq was first at 35 percent, followed by gas prices (28 percent), immigration (26 percent) and same-sex marriage (5 percent). Not even 1 percent said a flag burning amendment should be Congress' top priority.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month asked a different variant of this question. It included flag burning among seven issues and asked registered voters which two would be most important in helping them decide how to vote for Congress this fall. Flag burning again came in dead last - with just 4 percent naming it as their most or second-most important issue.

The Pew Research Center took a third approach. In a nationwide telephone survey June 14-19, registered voters were asked whether they considered each of 19 issues to be important to them personally. Education led the way (82 percent said it is "very important"), followed by the economy (80 percent) and health care (79 percent). Just under half (49 percent) said a flag amendment is very important, placing it 14th on the list.

To be sure, even at that level of support, the public judges flag burning to be more important than several other high-profile issues, including global warming, abortion and gay marriage.

Of all the issues tested in the Pew survey, a proposed flag burning amendment is the one that generated the biggest opinion gap between lower- and higher-less-educated and more-educated respondents. Some two-thirds (67 percent) of those with a high school education or less say flag burning is a very important issue, compared with just 28 percent of college graduates who say this. There is also a notable partisan division; 60 percent of Republicans say it is a very important issue, compared with just 44 percent each of Democrats and independents.

Ever since 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that desecrating the flag is a constitutionally protected form of free speech, Congress has periodically taken up a flag burning amendment.

Last week it came as close as ever to approving one; the Senate's 66-34 vote in favor was just one vote shy of the two-thirds majority required to send such an amendment to the states for ratification.

No matter what happened in Congress, many Americans will be flying Old Glory, not just on the coming July 4 holiday but at various times throughout the year.

Some 64 percent of adults say they display the flag at their home, in their office or on their car, according to a Pew survey this year. This figure is down from 2002, when, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of Americans who said they displayed the flag spiked to 75 percent. However, the 2005 figure is somewhat higher than levels registered by similar surveys taken in the 1980s and 1990s.

The 2005 survey also found that Old Glory gets its heaviest workout in rural areas. Some three-quarters of rural residents (76 percent) say they display a flag, compared with 65 percent of suburbanites and 54 percent of city dwellers. Also, more Republicans (78 percent) report displaying the flag than do Democrats (57 percent) or independents (60 percent).

Paul Taylor is executive vice president of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

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