WASHINGTON -- On Capitol Hill, Congress considers a constitutional amendment to protect the flag. Around the country, civil libertarians fret that free speech will suffer. In the nation's capital, Floyd Smith and his crew at the National Park Service quietly, respectfully go about their business.
In their green-and-gray uniforms, they are the people responsible for keeping the flags flying over the Park Service's capital monuments.
The crew replaces the flags that fray in the wind. They lower the flags to half-staff when a dignitary dies or national tragedies prompt a period of mourning.
The workers follow tradition carefully, lowering the flag to the ground before raising it to the top of the staff again.
"You've got to show respect," Mr. Smith said from his office in the Park Service maintenance yard, near the Tidal Basin. "Nowadays, in our world, that's a word that's obsolete. But that's our flag. That's what people have lost their lives for."
"Sometimes it's just a job," said Matthew Newman, a member of the maintenance crew. "Sometimes it's a rush. Sometimes it's exciting, an honor."
Across Washington from the maintenance yard, on Capitol Hill, the flag is once again the subject of debate. And the symbol of the United States, which is supposed to stand for unity, points up divisions in the country.
Last week, the House passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration. It now goes to the Senate. Opponents say it would infringe on First Amendment protections of free speech.
Why the debate over the flag now, when flag desecration is almost never in the news?
"What the flag means depends upon the state of harmony or social unity in our society," said Murray Edelman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "Today, it seems to be owned by the [political] right. It's the right that seems to feel that the flag symbolizes what they stand for."
The flag, he said, was created as a symbol. "The important thing is not the flag, but the state of the public welfare. If the flag becomes a more important symbol than the public welfare," Mr. Edelman said, "then it becomes a potential problem."
The debate can become emotional. The flag, created as a symbol, has come to be revered, summarizing for Americans what they hold dear about their country.
David I. Kertzer, professor of anthropology and history at Brown University, calls the flag "the holy icon of America's civil religion."
"People have a need to believe they're part of something greater than themselves, something greater in which they can put their faith," Mr. Kertzer said. Other countries have a state religion or a monarchy. Americans focus on the flag.
Mr. Smith and his crew members know that. They work under the watchful gaze of the tourists who line up at the Washington Monument or arrive at Union Station or weep at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And woe to any Park Service employee who violates some rule of flag protocol, such as letting even a corner of the flag touch the ground.
"Tourists, oh sure, they have sharp eyes," Mr. Smith said. "And in Washington, you got military people everywhere," well educated the rules surrounding the flag. "They know," Mr. Smith said. "They know."
Should a flag touch the ground, it's never raised, Mr. Smith said. It's put back on the truck and destroyed by incineration.
Mr. Smith, 46, has been at this job 25 years. He was fresh from two years in the Army in Korea when he arrived for work on the special events crew in August 1970.
Vietnam War protesters were staging huge demonstrations -- including at least one, Mr. Smith recalled, that included attempts to burn the flags at the Washington Monument.
The crew, which had been put on alert, was sent to replace the flags, in the midst of the protest.
"For me, just out of the Army, I was in a state of shock," Mr. Smith said. "I'd never seen anything like that. But then, you have to understand that not everybody feels the same way you do about everything. You can't take everything to heart."
He and Mr. Newman approve of a constitutional amendment allowing states to ban flag desecration.
"Every now and then," Mr. Smith said, making it clear that he was speaking for himself and not his employer, "we need to be reminded what the flag stands for.
"It means we can walk out of the house in the morning without asking permission. It's very important to me, because when you come down to it, that flag gave us the opportunity to be what you want to be in this world. It gave us a whole lot of opportunity -- all colors, creeds and races."
Mr. Smith's view of the flag is typical of many Americans'.
It stands for "emotions, thoughts, ideals, history, culture, geography," said Mark Peterson, managing editor of Stars and Stripes, a national newspaper on veterans' affairs.
"Among veterans, especially, there's an almost religious veneration of the flag," Mr. Peterson said. "What I'm hearing from our readers is, it's all very well to talk about the Constitution, but what is worth protecting, is the flag.
"People are willing to fight for ideals," Mr. Peterson said, "but they need to see those ideals made concrete, and that's what the flag does for them."
William Beeman, a Brown University anthropology professor, said that Americans probably hold the flag in higher reverence than many other nations do. But it's a symbol, he said, "that probably for the United States is very desperately needed."
"We're a diverse society," Mr. Beeman said, "and we're constantly changing. Our political opinions shift back and forth in time in a way that makes other people's heads spin. We're very unruly and messy, from the standpoint of the planet as a whole.
"So, having a few touchstones that symbolize the whole, that remind us that despite all the variations there is still a whole that contains us is important," he said.
Mr. Smith agrees. He learned how to handle the flag from "the old guys, who were here years ago. Now I teach the new guys. We follow the old tradition."
Tonight, when the period of mourning ends for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Mr. Smith's crews will lower the flags from half-staff to the ground and then raise them back up the flagpole, as tradition dictates.
Any tourists who are watching will approve. "They love their flag," Mr. Smith said.