JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Fourth of July is a day of family, food and fireworks surrounded by a celebration of the birth of the United States. The American flag is a major decorative element in all the festivities.
There are rules for displaying that flag, however. Decorations such as napkins or streamers may be out of line with a system of etiquette written into U.S. law.
And veterans usually appreciate proper displays of the flag.
"(A local hardware store) used to sell floor mats that looked like an American flag," said Don Earles, post commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 534. "You're telling me that people should wipe their shoes on the flag I fought for?"
The floor mat is an extreme example of not considering flag etiquette -- the hardware store eventually pulled those mats off the sales floor, Earles said. When talking with people about flag etiquette, Earles and others with the VFW post usually thank people for flying the flag and present them with a certificate, then offer suggestions about how to fly according to code.
There are many examples of how well-meaning patriotism can result in a breach of etiquette that may offend troops, active and retired.
For example: The display of a large flag held by dozens of people at a football game, where the flag is stretched over the field. The only time a flag should be held flat is when it's about to be draped over a casket, Earles said.
In a nutshell, an American flag should be "flying free," Earles said -- that means it should be flown from a vertical pole. While a slight angle to the pole is permissible, such as a flag attached to a wall similar to the flags in school classrooms, the flag should rarely be hung from a horizontal pole.
That's called "dipping" the flag, Earles said. While U.S. law has a series of specific rules for such displays, such as hanging flags over roads, in general it's discouraged.
Another common display of the flag deals with wardrobe. Many of us put on red, white and blue outfits with stars and stripes to celebrate the day.
And most of those are just fine, Earles said. Any graphic depiction or illustration of the flag is permissible and can be worn proudly. But using an actual flag as clothing is another issue -- wearing the flag as a shawl or bandanna doesn't fly.
"One of my nephews had a bandanna that was a flag," Earles said. "If you're wearing a bandanna that has a picture of a flag on it, that's OK."
In general, any artistic representation of a flag or its elements are just fine. Etiquette starts to get breached when the item starts to resemble an actual flag.
A good rule of thumb is to check whether the item is intended to be thrown away or walked on. A paper napkin or floor mat depicted as a flag would be improper, for instance.
Earles recommended other tips for anyone wanting to fly a flag:
- A flag that remains flying throughout the day should be lit at night.
- A flag shouldn't be allowed to touch the ground. However, Earles said that burning a flag if it touches the ground is not always necessary. "It's a fallacy that any flag that touches the ground should be burned," Earles said. "A flag that touches the ground can be taken to a cleaner."
- Never hang a flag from the ceiling.
- If a flag is hung in a window, it should be displayed so that outside viewers see the union (the field of blue with white stars) in its proper location in the upper left.
- Lowering the flag to half-staff is also regulated: Only the president can order the flag to be flown at half-mast.
Etiquette for the U.S. flag is outlined in federal law, but none of the statutes are punishable by law. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that any punishment of violations would constitute a violation of First Amendment rights.