May 25, 2014

Bee Investigator: Only a few people are authorized to order U.S. flag to fly at half-staff

Who can call for a U.S. flag to fly at half-staff? Surprisingly, not many people.

This question is very timely for Memorial Day: Frank Ramczyk of Modesto asked about flying flags at half-staff.

“I thought only the president or a state governor could order flags to be flown at half-mast,” he said. “I see the flag in front of the sheriff’s office frequently flown at half-mast. Has our sheriff been given special permission, or does that office feel it doesn’t need to follow protocol?”

Ouch! Did he have to throw in that last dig?

Before I answer his question, let me throw in a few random facts so they don’t get buried: According to Flag Code, the flag should be flown at half-staff today until noon. The other days it is permitted to be flown at half-staff are May 15, Peace Officers Memorial Day; Sept. 11, Patriot Day; the Sunday of the week that contains Oct. 9, Fire Prevention Week; and Dec. 7, National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day; all to be flown from sunrise to sunset.

Back to Frank’s question. I took an informal poll of folks last week and found that most people didn’t know the correct answer, and I was among them. They thought that law enforcement officials, city officials, veterans groups and even a librarian could hoist a flag to half-staff to honor someone who had died. Not so.

I found the most complete information concerning “Flag Rules and Regulations” at www.ushistory.org/flag. It has extensive information on the correct use and misuse of the U.S. flag.

The website says, “The laws relating to the flag of the United States of America are found in detail in the United States Code. Title 4, Chapter 1 pertains to the flag; Title 18, Chapter 33, Section 700 regards criminal penalties for flag desecration; Title 36, Chapter 3 pertains to patriotic customs and observances.”

The Flag Code was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, but has been updated and amended since then.

Regarding who can order an American flag to be flown at half-staff, here’s the answer found at the website:

“Section 7m of the Flag Code authorizes a governor to half-staff the US flag upon the death of a present or former official of the government of the state, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from that state while on active duty.

“The President, by comparison, is authorized to half-staff the US flag by proclamation upon the death of principal figures of the US Government and the governor of a state, territory, or possession, as well as in the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries.”

Can a Stanislaus County mayor order a flag flown at half-staff? Not the U.S. flag. The Flag Code says only the president, a governor of your state or the mayor of the District of Columbia can order the U.S. flag lowered to half-staff. That means no local official, no law enforcement leader, no school district official or business leader can order their U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff, regardless of the reason.

“If everyone were to half-staff the US flag at will, the symbolic value of that honor would be lost,” according to the website. It does suggest that state flags, city flags, business flags, school flags or other flags can be lowered to express sorrow and respect for the loss of someone.

So now you know. To close things out, here are a few more interesting and perhaps surprising notes about the U.S. flag:

If my flag touches the ground, must I destroy it?

No, but it’s best to avoid having it touch the ground.

If it’s raining, do I have to take my flag down?

Most flags sold today are all-weather and are permitted to fly during inclement weather.

What music is used when a flag is lowered?

The traditional bugle call for U.S. civilians lowering the flag is taps. It was composed by Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield in 1862 to replace the more formal “Tattoo” (lights out). It is called taps because it was often tapped out on a drum in the absence of a bugler. It was used by both Northern and Southern camps.

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