The official guide to American Flag etiquette is found in the United States Flag Code, which is formalized in Title 4 of the United States Code.
The Flag Code may be found in federal law, but there is no enforcement action associated with violations of the code. You cannot go to jail for violations of the Flag Code, but for any citizen interested in a true display of patriotism, adherence to the Flag Code is a bit of a no-brainer.
Deliberate violations of the Flag Code are sometimes used as a distress call, and more commonly as a form of protest. But many violations of the code are done out of ignorance, convenience, and sometimes for utility. We’ll examine those below.
What Is The United States Flag Code?
Title 4 of the United States Code, Section 8, Respect For The Flag is essentially the U.S. Flag Code. It formalizes and codifies the acceptable uses of the flag and how it should be displayed.
The code includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
- The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
- The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
- The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.
Proper Display Of The U.S. Flag
Americans are encouraged to fly or display the flag, “from sunrise to sunset on buildings and stationary flagstaffs in the open.” Flags may be displayed 24-7 when properly lit during nighttime hours.
The U.S. flag flies above all others on a single staff. When flags are placed in a row, the order of precedence has the U.S. flag to the viewer’s left and all other flags lined up to the right of the American flag. When displaying the flags of other nations in this manner, the U.S. flag will be flown at the same height as all others.
On what the Flag Code designates as “special days” including Memorial Day, flags may be flown at half-staff. When flying at half-staff, it is customary to raise the flag all the way to the peak of the staff first, and lower it back down to the half-staff position.
When placing the U.S. flag on a podium or lectern, the flag should be situated on the speaker’s right; other flags are placed to the left. When the flag must be viewed against a wall, the blue “Union” field of stars, “should be uppermost and to the flag’s own right, that is, to the observer’s left.”
Displaying in a window requires the flag to be viewed in the same way. The flag should be visible to the person looking at the window from the outside with Union blue to the observer’s left.
In some cases the American flag may be affixed to a vehicle; the Flag Code advises, “the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.”
When displayed at a funeral as a covering for a casket or coffin, the flag must be placed Union side at the head and to the left. The flag must not be lowered into the grave. It must never touch the ground.
Abuses Of The American Flag
Typically, Americans tend to casually violate the Flag Code in a number of ways:
- Using the U.S. flag as an article of clothing
- Using the U.S. flag as a decoration
- Using the flag as any kind of informal covering
- Allowing the flag to touch the ground
- Using the U.S. flag to carry any object
American flags can also be misused for profit–Title 4 prohibits the use of the U.S. flag for any commercial purposes whatsoever.
The U.S. Flag Code also adds, “It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.”
And what about as clothing?
“No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.”
Who Salutes The Flag When Displayed?
All in uniform should render the salute, and currently serving military members and veterans who are not in uniform may also salute the flag.
Those who are not in the uniformed services traditionally pay respect to the flag by standing at attention with the right hand over the heart. Headgear is traditionally removed when rendering these customs and courtesies.
Flag Code Etiquette For Storing The U.S. Flag
In general, when storing a United States Flag, it should be folded into a triangle shape. It must never be stored in a wad or in an otherwise unkempt manner.
Sometimes it is necessary to dispose of a United States Flag. In cases like these, the flag is traditionally disposed of by burning. There is a prescribed approach to this activity, which involves making sure the fire is large and powerful enough to completely burn the flag.
The flag should be placed upon the fire and be allowed to burn completely. The ashes should then be respectfully buried. In all circumstances, fire safety and compliance with local ordinances is a must.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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