Flags In — a reminder of the First Amendment

Published 12:16 pm Saturday, May 24, 2014

Editor’s note: This column is the third and final part in a series on the Constitution in which Congressman Forbes discusses three areas he believes need a renewed commitment from our nation’s leaders. Because of its relevance to Memorial Day, we are running it ahead of the second part of the series that will publish next week.

On the Thursday evening before Memorial Day, every available soldier in the U.S. Army’s Old Guard comes together to walk the rows of more than 260,000 gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery. With careful precision, they place an American flag one foot in front of each grave marker. For the duration of the weekend, the Old Guard stays in the cemetery, ensuring a flag remains in front of each grave marker.

This tradition called “Flags In” has been conducted every year since 1948. The flags add color and a sort of hope to the otherwise subdued white grave markers. But it’s more than a colorful display of patriotism. It is 260,000 distinct reminders of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.

The First Amendment of our Constitution outlines some of those freedoms that our Founding Fathers saw as inherent to our DNA as a nation. The First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In other words, the First Amendment expresses freedoms that are at the core of liberty. The First Amendment outlines inalienable rights, and seeks to protect those rights for every citizen in the United States.

We enjoy these freedoms every day. We enjoy them when we attend church, write a letter to the editor expressing a disagreement with a government policy, or sign a petition expressing support for some effort of community betterment. But these freedoms don’t come free. They came — and continue to come — at a very high price.

This Memorial Day, the significance of the First Amendment is not lost on me. As I look out over the 260,000 flags on grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery, I am reminded of those who won these freedoms for us. The grave markers at Arlington are only a small representation of the thousands and thousands of veterans’ grave markers that exist across this nation. These grave markers often represent men and women who gave their lives in service of our nation.

Memorial Day is special, not just simply because we recognize those who paid, as President Lincoln said so eloquently, “the last full measure of devotion” for their country. Memorial Day is special because it is a reminder of the very high cost at which our rights come.

Our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors for the liberties expressed in the First Amendment. And every year since the Declaration of Independence was signed, men and women in our Armed Forces — have stepped forward to pledge their own lives and sacred honors for the continuity of those liberties.

The freedom we have to express our religious values? We owe gratitude to our men and women in uniform.

Our freedom to express our opinions publicly? The simple act of picking up a newspaper or choosing where we consume our news? We can thank military service members.

The freedom to peaceably assemble? We enjoy this right because of those who served.

This is precisely why so many of us are troubled at continued efforts by a small minority to water down the rights expressed in the First Amendment. Many organizations are forced to mute religious expressions. Citizens have come under fire for exercising their freedom to display the American flag. The government’s increasing role in electronic information in the name of security has brought up many conversations on privacy and its connection to the freedom of expression.

It is troubling because those who seek to water down these First Amendment rights seem to forget the sacrifice that was paid for those freedoms. Yet, the two cannot be separated because one exists at the protection of the other.

Walking among the rows of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, I can’t help but think of the words by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “At the grave of a hero we end, not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.”

Let’s not give up the fight for these liberties. We owe it to those we remember this weekend. Those who have fought for and protected — in blood, lives, and sacrifice — the freedoms we enjoy every day.

U.S. Rep. RANDY FORBES, R-Va., represents Western Tidewater in the U.S. House of Representatives. His e-mail address is randy@randyforbes.com.