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Georgia flag bill faces new hurdle

Senate amendment means House must reconsider measure

From top: Georgia state flag from 1956 - 2001, the current Georgia state flag and the new state flag design.
From top: Georgia state flag from 1956 - 2001, the current Georgia state flag and the new state flag design.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A controversial bill that would give Georgia its third state flag design in two years was put in peril Tuesday night when the state Senate decided to fix a mistake in the bill's language that made the banner too long.

The vote was the latest episode in a controversy over incorporating Confederate imagery in the state flag that has dogged Georgia lawmakers for more than a dozen years.

The Senate approved the bill, which adopts a new flag design modeled after a Confederate flag and then allows voters to approve or reject the new flag in a referendum next March. However, because of an amendment to fix the size mistake, the measure now has to go back through the House.

While the House has already passed the measure, only one day remains in this year's legislative session, which is constitutionally limited to 40 days. So opponents in the Democratic-controlled House may be able to delay the bill long enough to kill it.

However, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who made a referendum on the flag a major issue in his successful campaign last fall, could call a special session to reconsider the bill.

Leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate had tried to hold the line on any amendments so the bill could be sent directly to Perdue. But senators, by a vote of 29-26, opted to fix an error made in drafting the bill, which would have made the new state flag longer than the U.S. flag and most other state flags -- and could have left it dragging the ground on standard indoor flagpoles.

Four Republicans crossed party lines to vote for the amendment, which was supported by all but one Democrat in the Senate.

The flag bill was approved over the vehement objections of black Democrats in the Legislature, who said it could lead to a racially divisive fight over whether to restore the design of the Confederate battle flag to Georgia's state flag.

Two years ago, then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, pushed a bill through the Legislature drastically reducing the size of the emblem from the Confederate battle flag, which had been a prominent feature of the state flag since 1956.

The Confederate battle flag, which features a blue "X" on a red field with white stars on the "X," has become controversial because of its use by white supremacist and racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. It was adopted as a feature of the Georgia flag in an era when the battle over desegregation was raging in the South.

But Barnes' new flag provoked resentment from both Southern heritage groups and Georgians who thought the flag design should have been put to a vote. Last November, Perdue swept Barnes out of office, becoming Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Referendum on new design

Under the bill approved by the Senate Tuesday, Barnes' flag would immediately be replaced with a new design, which voters would be asked to approve or reject in a referendum early next year.

The new flag is modeled after the "Stars and Bars" national flag used by the Confederacy.

Many black lawmakers and Confederate heritage groups have said they could live with the new design. But a second part of the flag revision process has provoked a storm of controversy.

If voters reject the new design, another referendum would be held next summer in which voters would choose between the former state flag containing the Confederate battle emblem and another design used before it was changed in 1956.

The possibility that the Confederate battle emblem could be put to a statewide vote has angered many black lawmakers and alarmed some state business leaders, who fear it could harm Georgia's image.

But supporters of the bill downplayed the possibility of a second referendum, saying the new state flag will likely win approval in the first vote, ending the controversy once and for all.

However, in the negotiations that led to the design of the new flag, legislators decided to make the phrase "In God We Trust" -- which is on the current state flag but is not prominent -- much more visible, throwing the issue of separation of church and state into the mix of controversy.

Black legislators have been trying to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag for more than a dozen years. The effort gained steam in 1993, when then-Gov. Zell Miller, now a U.S. senator, pushed the Legislature to remove the Confederate battle emblem. Lawmakers rejected the idea, and Miller nearly lost his re-election bid the next year.

This time around, the flag bill was supported by a combination of Republican and rural white legislators, while it was opposed by black legislators and many white Democrats representing urban districts.

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