Dr. Jan Meyer: Our flag deserves a lot of respect

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

Flag Day, a “lesser-acknowledged” date in the U.S., is nonetheless an important holiday. The day is acknowledged, and maybe some of us remember to put out our flags in honor of the occasion. However, the holiday on which the flag is displayed almost everywhere, and respect for it is more predominant, is the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. What reminded me of this again was seeing a golf cart already decorated with numerous small flags, getting ready for the annual Fourth of July Golf Cart Parade at the Old Barn. It’s a fun event, and people are known to get very creative with their patriotic-themed golf carts. For anyone interested, it’s scheduled to start at 4 p.m.

Because our flags will be very visible and getting a lot of use this entire week, it’s a good time to review flag etiquette. There is a national code for treatment of the U.S. flag. It was adopted on Flag Day, June 14, 1923, by the American Legion and 68 other patriotic organizations, which had gathered to draft it. The 77th Congress adopted it as public law, and on June 22, 1942, it was made part of Title 4, U.S. Code, Chapter 1.

Over the years a few myths have spread about proper flag etiquette. One of the gems on the American Legion’s website is an identification of the top few of those stories, and also each one is shown to be untrue. Those start with the idea that a flag which had been used on a casket could never be used for any other display purpose. In retrospect, I guess I must have thought that was true, at least from what I have seen around me: when I have been to a funeral at which military honors were provided, the flag that was draped over the casket was ceremoniously folded and handed to the next of kin. In my family, that flag was then forever encased, still properly folded, in a triangular glass-fronted wooden case.

The second one is that we can’t display a flag with less than fifty stars. Not true: if you still own a flag leftover from when we were 48 states, it is OK to fly it.

Third on the list of myths is that the flag code provides penalties for a flag etiquette violation. Actually there is no penalty set for improper flag treatment; the code is intended to be a guideline only. I personally think that should be changed!

Another myth is that a flag must be destroyed if it touches the ground. The code says that any flag suitable for display “can continue to be displayed as a symbol of our great country.” It is the suitability that counts.

Number five on the list is that we are prohibited from washing or dry cleaning flags. This is not so. Washing or dry cleaning is OK, and the choice of which should depend on what type of material of which the flag is constructed. I had never even thought about that question of whether or not we could wash the flags. I guess it never came up because we always keep it off the ground, out of inclement weather, and away from any other possibility that would get it dirty.

I had always thought that flags had to be properly illuminated, in other words, never flown in the dark; some time in the not-too-distant past I had heard or read that this rule did not apply to private residences. The sixth myth on this list is that it is now OK to not illuminate our flags in the night hours. That is false; so is what I had heard or read about private residences. There has been “no change to the Flag Code Section 6(a) which states that ‘the universal custom is to display only sunrise to sunset in the open…however, it may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.’”

Another myth is that a “Mayor or town official or American Legion Post Commander can order the flag to be displayed at half mast.” I have long wondered who decides when the flags are to be at half mast, because in recent years I have seen no consistency. One town seems to have all flags at half mast on the same day that the next town has none at half mast. In actuality, the order for flags to be at half mast can only come from the President of the United States or a governor of a state. Not following this requirement “erodes the honor and reverence that is accorded in this solemn act.”

Thanks to our local American Legion, we are becoming more aware of proper flag “retirement.” The myth is that it must be disposed of by burning in private. No, the code says that it must be disposed of “in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” Since 1937, the American Legion has promoted public flag disposal ceremonies, “a fitting tribute and an overt expression of patriotism, which enhances the public’s understanding of honor and respect due the American flag.”

The last myth is one of which I had no knowledge: “The fringing of the flag is prohibited.” I took that to mean that flags can not have fringe attached to its outside edges. According to the Legion’s website, it can be fringed or not. “Fringing the flag is considered as an honorable enrichment to the flag.” Evidently, in the past, there have been lawsuits filed over this, which “courts have deemed as without merit, and frivolous.” I doubt whether this myth gets much traction anymore anyway; I can’t imagine anyone adding fringe to a flag, or caring if someone else did, unless perhaps it was green fringe or something else totally disrespectful.