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Posted July 3, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Stars 'n' stripes: Etiquette is key in patriotic display

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An American flag rests outside Stover Funeral Home on North Holliday Street in Strasburg, with a steeple at St. Paul Lutheran Church behind it. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Bunting hangs outside the marquis at Community Theatre in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily


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Excerpts from the U.S. flag code

On times and occasions for display:

  • It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset. ... However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24-hours-a-day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.
  • The flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously.
  • The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.

On position and manner of display:


  • The flag, when carried in a procession with another flag or flags, should be either on the marching right, that is the flag's own right, or if there is a line of other flags, in the front of the center of that line.

  • No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America ...

  • When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size.

  • When the flag of the United States is displayed from a staff projecting horizontally or at an angle from the window sill, balcony, or front of a building, the union of the flag should be placed at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half staff.

  • When displayed either horizontally or vertically against the wall, the union should be uppermost and to the flag's own right.

  • The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.

On respect for the flag:

  • No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.
  • 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 have placed upon it ... any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture or drawing of any nature.
  • The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.
  • No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. [Except a flag patch on uniforms of military personnel, firemen, policemen and members of patriotic organizations.]

-- Source: The U.S. flag code as available on the American Legion's Web site, www.legion.org.

By Jessica Wiant -- jwiant@nvdaily.com

With the Fourth of July on the horizon, odds are good that fireworks, watermelon and other traditions are on tap for your household. Perhaps flag-themed T-shirts, swimming trunks, food or decor will also be part of your celebration of the nation's independence.

But if your idea of being patriotic is following the law rather than decking out your lawn in stars and stripes, then you may want to skip the flag-decorated chair cushions and the blueberry, strawberry and Cool Whip-topped flag cake.

In fact, federal code prohibits all those things, even though there will be no fine or jail time if you don't oblige.

Congress created a flag code in 1942 outlining proper procedures for handling the U.S. flag and forbidding anything disrespectful of it, according to one local resident, Tom Carrier of Strasburg.

And Carrier is the one to ask. Currently on tour with a traveling exhibit, "The American Presidential Experience," in Destin, Fla., Carrier is a vexillologist -- someone who studies flag history and symbolism -- and has been involved with vexillology groups at all levels.

If you want to respect the flag this holiday, respect the flag code, he says. Of course, for most, that requires clearing up several misunderstandings.

First, as far as the federal law goes, if it looks like a flag, then it is a flag, according to Carrier, and that includes all the different versions there have been of the U.S. flag over the years (and even that flag-decorated cake and flag-embossed clothing and accessories). And as for "flags," the code includes a whole collection of rules for how civilians should treat them.

A commonly known rule is that the flag shouldn't touch the ground, according to Carrier. A common misperception, however, is that once it touches the ground it needs to be burned. Just wipe it off.

"You can wash the flag, it's OK," Carrier says.

As for burning the flag, it isn't illegal, he says. In fact, the proper way to deal with a worn-out or defaced flag is to burn it during an appropriate ceremony. Boy Scouts, the VFW and other organizations can perform such ceremonies, he says, so if you have a worn out flag, take it to one such group rather than throw it away.

However, even if the flag is being burned as a sign of disrespect or protest, it's protected under freedom of speech, Carrier says.

Additionally, there is no ceremony for folding the flag. Contrary to popular belief, a flag doesn't need to be folded 13 times or in the shape of a triangle, Carrier says.

For those who want to display their patriotism on their vehicle, the only acceptable place to fly the flag from a car is from the front right fender.

It also isn't proper to fly the flag half-staff on a whim. Only the president, governor or the mayor of Washington can order that flags be flown at half-staff, Carrier says.

Other rules people may not know include that the flag:

  • shouldn't be hung from the ceiling.
  • cannot be carried flat in a parade because it must be upright and visible.
  • cannot be worn on clothing, as a sticker or even as a pin.
  • cannot be placed on anything disposable. Any "flag" that is worn out needs to be disposed of properly.
  • should be lit at night from below with an independent light source, or else taken down at dusk.
  • should never be on a floor where it will be walked on.
  • should not be used in any kind of advertising.

And these aren't even all the rules. The code dictates how a flag should be hung, that it should always be to the right when displayed at a podium, how it should be in a position of prominence when displayed with other flags, and it should never be marked on with any image of any kind -- and the flag should also never be "embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkin or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard," the code says.

"I know it's a lot," Carrier says. "I know it sounds overly restrictive."

The main idea is for people to understand the code, use common sense and not take it overly seriously or avoid flying the flag altogether.

"We don't want to see the flag go away," Carrier says.

Some appropriate ways to honor the flag this holiday include carrying a parade flag, hanging the flag from a pole from your home, and using red, white and blue bunting or other decorations that aren't in the image of the flag's actual design.

Things to remember are that the flag was only created as an afterthought in the first place when the U.S. needed a way to identify its ships, Carrier says, and that there are no spiritual qualities attached to the flag or even meaning behind its red, white and blue color scheme.

Even the Postal Service has broken the code with its popular flag stamps, he explains, so the main thing is to use common sense in order to respect the flag -- and to display it as often as possible.

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