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Flag manners: 8 ways to show the American flag some respect

If you don’t know the ins and outs of flag code, read on for a primer on how to fly the American flag without offense.

A large U.S. flag hangs in front of Union Station in Washington, D.C.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Feeling the urge to unfurl your Old Glory for Independence Day?

Uncle Sam would be proud. But for the casual American flag owner, striking the right balance between patriotic and polite can be tough. No one wants to go the way of Home and Gardens TV and apologize for suggesting an American flag can be a bright and festive table runner, as it did last month.

The American flag “represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing,” according to US Flag Code. Many people consider it sacred, and abide by the Flag Code, approved by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 22, 1942, for rules on proper handling of the flag.

If you don’t know the ins and outs of flag code, or wonder if you’ll really be punished for breaking the rules, read on for a primer on how to fly the American flag without offense.

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All answers in quotes are from the U.S. Flag Code.

Can I fly my flag at night?

“It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”

If my flag touches the ground, do I really need to burn it?

“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

Must the American flag be higher than all other flags?

“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, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for the personnel of the Navy.

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. International usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another nation in time of peace.”

Can the flag ever be flown upside down?

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“The flag should never be displayed with union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

What if it’s raining?

“The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.”

The flag would look great on my ceiling! Can I do that? 

“The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.”

I’ve seen some cute flag crafts on Pinterest. Are they appropriate?

“The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything. The flag … 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.”

Who says I need to follow these rules?

Technically, you don’t have to, at least under federal law. The US Flag Code is a compilation of traditional rules and customs for use of the flag, first based on guidelines from the National Flag Conference in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 1923, and does not carry the weight of law. 

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Congress attempted to create criminal penalties for burning or defacing the flag, but was overruled by the US Supreme Court in 1989 and 1990. 

But watch out for state law. Nearly all states have their own flag laws on the books, and several include fines and/or jail time for burning, trampling, or defacing the flag. Montana residents face the stiffest penalties: A person convicted of showing contempt for the US flag or Montana state flag can face a fine of up to $50,000 and a jail term up to 10 years, according to the First Amendment Center.