The Supreme Court yesterday overturned the recently enacted federal flag protection law, prompting immediate calls from Congress and the administration for a constitutional amendment to prohibit destruction of the American flag.

Dividing 5 to 4, the court reaffirmed its ruling last year striking down a Texas law that banned flag burning. After that decision, Congress passed a law it hoped would withstand constitutional scrutiny by prohibiting all forms of flag destruction for whatever reason. But in an opinion by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the court said the new statute still violated the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.

President Bush, whose administration unsuccessfully defended the law before the high court, said he would "continue to press" for a constitutional amendment.

"Some of us said ahead of time that the legislative approach would not be upheld. Apparently, the court decided that," Bush said at a Rose Garden ceremony barely an hour after the ruling was announced. The president allowed the measure to become law last year without his signature.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both houses moved swiftly to reconsider a constitutional amendment in an atmosphere reminiscent of the emotional aftermath of last year's ruling in Texas v. Johnson.

The House Judiciary Committee begins consideration of an amendment next week, and Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), an opponent of the idea, has promised a vote within 30 days.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a sponsor of the flag desecration law, said he believes the court was wrong but Congress was "left with no other option but a constitutional amendment." Biden said he would convene hearings "to determine how to best fashion an amendment that doesn't do violence to the Constitution's First Amendment."

Despite the furor triggered when the court struck down the Texas law last year, Congress turned aside an effort by the administration and Republicans to enact an amendment, arguing that the new law would pass constitutional muster. The Senate failed to adopt the proposed amendment, voting 51-48 -- 15 votes short of the necessary two thirds majority -- for an amendment giving Congress and the states "power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag."

A constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses and ratification by 38 states, would represent the first restriction of the Bill of Rights in its nearly 200-year history.

A number of Democrats were hopeful yesterday that the flag issue had lost its political and emotional potency in the last year, noting that a number of voters have shown discomfort with the concept of changing the Constitution and expressing doubt that an amendment can win a two-thirds majority in the House.

But Republicans said they were delighted with the opportunity to employ the flag, as Edward J. Rollins of the National Republican Congressional Committee described it, as "a defining issue, like Bush using the ACLU issue against {Democratic presidential nominee Michael S.} Dukakis."

Even if Congress passes a constitutional amendment, many state legislatures have finished work for the year, meaning that the national debate over ratification would not come until 1991.

The federal law on the books at the time of Texas v. Johnson prohibited acts that knowingly "cast contempt" on the American flag and was generally agreed to have been unconstitutional in light of the decision. The Flag Protection Act of 1989 was designed to withstand First Amendment scrutiny by being "content-neutral" and punishing all flag burning or other destruction, no matter what its motivation.

In overturning the statute yesterday, Brennan, the author of Texas v. Johnson, said the law "still suffers from the same fundamental flaw," squelching expression with which the government disagrees.

The ruling in U.S. v. Eichman came less than a month after the case was argued, and the split among the justices was identical to the lineup last year, with three liberals -- Justices Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun -- joined by two conservatives -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy -- to forge the majority.

"We are aware that desecration of the flag is deeply offensive to many," Brennan said in upholding two lower court rulings that dismissed prosecutions of flag burners in the District and Seattle.

However, Brennan said, quoting from last year's ruling, " 'If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.' Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the government had the right to protect "the symbolic value of the flag," and that criminalizing flag burning did not unduly interfere with protesters' ability to communicate their ideas.

Stevens's opinion was shorn of much of the emotional rhetoric that marked last year's dissenting opinions and, unlike last year, he did not read his dissent from the bench.

The flag "uniquely symbolizes the ideas of liberty, equality, and tolerance -- ideas that Americans have passionately defended and debated throughout our history . . .," Stevens said. "Thus the government may -- indeed, it should -- protect the symbolic value of the flag without regard to the specific content of the flag burners' speech."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.