How and when the U.S. flag and national anthem should be publicly respected and honored has become the matter of much debate and consternation, but what does the law say?
It’s actually easier than you think to disrespect the Star-Spangled Banner, at least according the sometimes obscure U.S. Flag Code.
The rules went into effect on the very first Flag Day — June 14, 1923 — but fell out of the spotlight until recently. Title 36, Chapter 10 of the United States Code, listed as “Patriotic Customs,” is quite specific and straightforward when it comes to what you should and should not do with the flag and during the national anthem, including what “respecting the flag” entails.
Most Americans know by heart at least a few of the 11 “respect for the flag” rules listed under Section 176. Never letting the flag touch the ground or water and only displaying the stars and stripes upside-down as a serious distress signal qualify as fairly common knowledge. But who knew about the part of the law that says the flag should never be used to cover the ceiling?
Here are some common ways the flag is disrespected every day, according to the federal code:
“The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.” So that’s going to be a no to American flag bikinis, bedspreads and curtains.
“The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.” The law is the law, even for iconic American brands.
“It 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.” Fourth of July picnics can be just as delicious without the star-spangled napkins and paper plates.
“No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.” It would seem even well-intended patriotism can put sports teams on the wrong side of the law.
“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 twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness. The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.”
Incidentally, the law is also pretty straightforward when it comes to what’s expected of Americans when the national anthem is played, given that the anthem is typically accompanied by a display of the flag. If the flag is being displayed, “all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart,” and those not in uniform should remove their hats, holding them at the left shoulder, which would put your hand over your heart. Those in uniform salute the flag for the entire song. If there’s no flag on display, everyone is supposed to face wherever the music is coming from and conduct themselves as if the flag is on display there. Kneeling, sitting or otherwise sitting out the anthem is not addressed in the law as illegal or otherwise.