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5 Myths About the American Flag

We the people love and honor the Stars and Stripes but haven't mastered its whole truth

Marcia Daughtrey, foreground, selected to participate in the Electoral College, recites the Pledge of Allegiance

Members of the Electoral College recite the Pledge of Allegiance. — Harry Cabluck/AP

Myth #3: The Pledge of Allegiance has long been recited in Congress and other governmental bodies.

The pledge was written by magazine editor Francis Bellamy in 1892 for a nationwide public school celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, New York became the first state to mandate that public school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day. Many states followed suit, and the pledge remained a staple of the daily routine in many schools until 1988, when it became an issue in the presidential campaign.

Vice President George H.W. Bush criticized his opponent, Democrat Michael Dukakis, for vetoing a bill as governor of Massachusetts that would have required the pledge to be recited in public schools. Dukakis said he did so after being advised that the law was unconstitutional.

At the height of the campaign, on Sept. 13, 1988, the pledge was recited on the floor of the House of Representatives for the first time. Republican members of the House, who were in the minority, offered a resolution to that effect, and it was accepted by Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat. Wright ruled that from then on, the pledge would be recited at the start of business each day that the House was in session.

The Senate did not begin daily recital of the pledge until June 24, 1999. Since then, the pledge has become part of the opening rituals of nearly all state and local governmental bodies.

American flag on fire.

According to the Supreme Court, laws banning flag burning violate free speech. — Vetta/Getty Images

Myth #4: It is illegal to burn the American flag.

It was illegal until 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in Texas v. Johnson that burning the flag is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.

The case involved Gregory Lee Johnson, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, who had burned the flag during a protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention. He was convicted of violating Texas’s flag-desecration law, fined $2,000 and sentenced to a year in jail. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction, ruling that Johnson was exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court’s decision invalidated a 1968 national flag-desecration law, as well as similar laws in 48 states (all except Wyoming and Alaska). In response, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, but that law was also challenged and wound up in the Supreme Court. The court in 1990 essentially affirmed its earlier ruling, stating that any law banning flag burning violated free speech.

Those decisions led to a national movement to amend the Constitution to make flag desecration illegal. The leading voice in that effort has been the Citizens Flag Alliance, which was founded in 1994 by the American Legion. Proposed amendments have come up regularly in the House and Senate since then but have yet to receive sufficient support.

Next myth: It's fine to show Old Glory on your clothing. »

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