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Flag protocol for the patriotic season: A how-to guide for the red, white and blue


Flags of remembrance

We’re about the enter a period when the colors red, white and blue will be particularly prominent. late spring and early summer are a patriotic season for many Americans.

Memorial Day, when Americans honor those in the military who have died in defense of the nation, is May 30. Flag Day is coming up June 14. And, of course, America will celebrate its 240th birthday on the Fourth of July.

While government buildings and many homes and businesses display the Stars and Stripes year round, others join in this time of year. And you find more red, white and blue and flag-themed merchandise in stores, particularly those that carry seasonal decorations.

While there are no enforceable laws on how the U.S. flag must be treated — attempts by Congress to protect the flag have been struck down by the courts — there is a Flag Code that, as the Congressional Research Service noted in a 2008 report to Congress, serves as a guide for civilians and civilian groups. People and groups are not bound by the code, which is strictly voluntary.

Here are some of the flag etiquette guidelines from the Flag Code and the CRS.


The customary display period is sunrise to sunset, but the code allows for nighttime display “when a patriotic effect is desired” so long as the flag is illuminated at night.

Eight sites, however, have specific legal authority to fly the flag day and night: Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, Md.; Flag House Square, Baltimore;the U.S. Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington, Va.; Lexington, Mass.; the White House; the Washington Monument; U.S. Customs ports of entry, and Valley Forge State Park, Pa. While not spelled out by Congress, the U.S. Capitol and other sites also display the flag 24 hours a day.

The code says the flag should displayed daily, but it also has days when it “especially” should be flown. While the Fourth of July, Flag Day, Memorial Day, Constitution Day and federal holidays are listed among those special days, the code also mentions some days that might not seem so obvious: Easter Sunday, Christmas and Thanksgiving. It also includes Mother’s Day in the list (Sorry, dads, Father’s Day doesn’t get a mention).


— When hoisting the flag, it should be done quickly. It should be lowered ceremonially.

— If flown in inclement weather, it should be made of all-weather material.

— The flag always should be flown with the union (the field of blue with white stars) uppermost on the flag’s own right.

— When flown on a staff attached to a building, the union should be away from the structure.

— If suspended above a street, it should be suspended vertically with the union to the north on an east-west street or to the east on a north-south street.

— Displayed on a speaker’s platform during a speech or similar event, the U.S. flag, if shown on a staff, should be placed on the speaker’s right. If attached to a wall, it should be placed behind and above the speaker, with the union to the speaker’s right.

— The flag should never be draped over an auto, train car or boat and should only be displayed from a parade float from a staff.

— If used in a procession with other flags, the U.S. flag should always be on the marching right (the flag’s right). If there is a line of other flags, the American flag should be carried in front of the center of that flag line.

— Where there is only one flag pole, the federal flag should be displayed above state or municipal flags.

— No other flag being shown with the U.S. flag should be flown above or, if on the same level, to the right of the U.S. flag with two exceptions. At sea, a naval chaplain may fly a church pennant above the U.S. flag during a church service. The United Nations flag may be flown more prominently and the U.S. flag may be flown at equal prominence with other UN member nations’ flag at the UN headquarters.

— Used to cover a casket, the union should be at the head and left shoulder. It should be removed before the coffin is lowered.

— On Memorial Day, Peace Officers Memorial Day and other occasions when the U.S. flag is to be flown at half-staff, it should first be quickly raised to the highest point, then ceremoniously lowered to the half-staff position. It should again be raised to the top of the staff before being lowered for the day. There are some set time periods for flags to be flown at half-staff in the death of prominent officials. The passing of a president or former president is 30 days, while a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice or speaker of the House is 10 days. A governor also can order the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff in his or her state. The president also is empowered to instruct instances when the flag should be flown at half-staff.


— No dipping. The U.S. flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, while regimental colors, state flags and others should be dipped in respect to the national flag.

— The union should only be flown down in the case of dire distress to signal danger to life and/or property.

— The U.S. flag should never touch anything beneath it — ground, flooring, water or merchandise.

— It should never be carried flat or horizontally.

— The U.S. flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery and should never be festooned, drawn back or in folds. Bunting with blue at top, white in the middle and red below can be used instead for decoration.

— The U.S. flag should never be displayed, used or stored in a manner in which it will be easily torn, soiled or damaged.

— No insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture or drawing should be placed upon the flag.

— It should never be used as a receptacle for carrying anything, not should it be used to cover a ceiling.

— The U.S. flag should not be used for advertising purposes in any manner, and advertising signs should not be attached to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.

— It should not be embroidered on articles such as cushions and handkerchiefs, not should it be printed on napkins or boxes or other items designed for temporary use and discard.

— The U.S. flag should never be used as a costume or athletic uniform, though a flag patch may be affixed to military, police, firefighter and patriotic organization uniforms. Lapel pin flags replicas should be worn on the left lapel.

— When a flag is no longer fit for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way — preferably burning.

— When observing the hoisting, lowering or passing by of the flag, uniformed military personnel should salute. Military personnel not in uniform and veterans also may salute. Others should stand at attention and place their right hand over their heart or, if they have on a hat, cap or other headdress, remove it and hold it over the left shoulder with their right hand.


— CONDOS AND CO-OPS: The Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 prohibits a condominium, cooperative or real estate management association from restricting or preventing a member of the association from displaying the U.S. flag in accordance with the Flag Code on residential property to which the member has a separate ownership interest.

— HOW BIG IS TOO BIG? There is nothing in the Flag Code about overall dimensions or the proportion of width to length. An executive order has established that federal executive agencies should use U.S. flags in which the length is 1.9 times the width.

— RETIRING A FLAG: The act does not set a procedure for burning a flag that needs to be retired. “It would seem that any procedure which is in good taste and shows no disrespect to the flag would be appropriate,” the CRS stated.

— FANCY FLAGSTAFF: Can you “dress up” the flagpole with an ornamental topping (finial)? “We know of no law or regulation which restricts the use of a finial on the staff. … The selection of the type finial used is a matter of preference of the individual or organization,” the CRS said.

— A FRINGE QUESTION: Adding fringe is acceptable, but only for indoor flags. “The placing of a fringe on the flag is optional with the person or organization, and no Act of Congress or Executive Order either requires or prohibits the practice,” the CRS noted. “Fringe is used on indoor flags only, as fringe on flags used outdoors would deteriorate rapidly. The fringe on a flag is considered an ‘honorable enrichment only’ and its official use by the Army dates from 1895.”


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