NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers want to outlaw placing a foreign flag above the American or state flag on government property.
Several of them are sponsoring legislation that would make it a class A misdemeanor for "failing to place the official flag of the United States on top when such flag is flown on the same pole with other flags."
Another bill states that the appropriate flag display protocol should be - from top to bottom - the American flag, the state flag and other flags.
Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, and one of the bills' sponsors, said the legislation was motivated by news reports last year of student protesters in California flying the American flag upside down under a Mexican flag.
"We need to go ahead and curb these issues before it happens in Tennessee," Watson said.
Stephen Fotopulos, policy director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the advocacy group has no position on these bills, but said the legislation is "absolute fear-mongering."
"It demonstrates how freely some politicians play on the fear of immigration and immigrants if they think it serves their political goals," Fotopulos said.
However, Watson said the bills are not intended to be discriminatory, but simply protect the flag. Under current Tennessee law, it's a class A misdemeanor to intentionally desecrate state or national flags.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey issued a statement saying he supports the legislation.
"I certainly support requiring our nation's flag be flown above any other nation's flag," said the Blountville Republican. "It should be the protocol we use, and I have no problem with putting it into state law."
But Rep. JoAnne Favors doesn't support the bills. The Chattanooga Democrat questioned how the law would be enforced and said it is more important to focus on issues such as health care and education funding reform.
"I think that we need to expend our energies on something productive," she said.
The bills passed the House Judiciary Committee last week and are being scheduled for the House floor. The companion bills have yet to be heard in the Senate, State and Local Government Committee.
Rep. Rob Briley, a Nashville Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, added an amendment to each of the House versions of the bills clarifying that the legislation applies specifically to government property, including education institutions.
Briley said he proposed the amendments to prevent the legislation from possibly being unconstitutional. House Democratic Caucus spokesman Kenneth Townsend said House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, will not block the bills. "Since the amendments were filed ... they pretty much reflect Speaker Naifeh's position," Townsend said. Gov. Phil Bredesen was unavailable for comment about the bills. (AP) Read the full texts of HB1408 and HB1409 on the General Assembly's Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us (AP) Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, www.timesfreepress.com AP-CS-04-15-07 1556EDT