The red, white, and blue blur of U.S. Flag Code etiquette

As we celebrate our nation’s 243rd birthday this Fourth of July, our patriotism will be evident with parades, picnics, patio barbecues, and pyrotechnics. So proudly we will hail, amid a sea of star-spangled banners.

But in these heartfelt salutes to Old Glory, many might first want to familiarize themselves with the “dos” and “don’ts” of how to display and respect the United States flag, as detailed in the U.S. Flag Code.

The “dos” prescribe how, where, and when the flag is to be displayed. They also dictate the way it is to be ceremoniously “retired”– meaning properly destroyed — as done last month at CalVet’s Veterans Home of California-Ventura. (More on that below.)

Veterans of Foreign Wars members retire a U.S. flag at a ceremony at CalVet's Veterans Home of California-Ventura on Flag Day.
Veterans of Foreign Wars members retire a U.S. flag at a ceremony at CalVet’s Veterans Home of California-Ventura on Flag Day.

The “don’ts” prohibit, among other things, wearing the flag as clothing of any kind (detailed in Section 8d): “The flag should never be used as apparel, bedding, or drapery.”

The caveat: The Flag Code spells out the spirit of flag etiquette, the majority of which is unenforceable. And it applies only to the use – or misuse – of a real American flag, not clothing that resembles the American flag, as the American Legion clarifies on its online site.

So when folks routinely deck out in American flag tee-shirts, hats, shorts, shoes, swimwear, and more, virtually all of it is imported and sold by retailers everywhere; they aren’t breaking the law. They instead are simply unaware of the overall spirit of the Flag Code – much to the chagrin of some Flag Code purists.

“The flag is the flag,” said Henry Sanchez of Elk Grove, the American Legion’s District 6 adjutant. “People like to show their patriotism in a variety of ways. Manufacturers make money off of it. (But wearing it) is a form of desecration if, in showing your patriotism, you are ignoring the rules and regulations of how to display it. Their patriotism is there, but they are misusing their flag and its colors.”

The American Legion has a vested interest in the U.S. Flag Code. The organization was instrumental in creating Flag Day in 1923, and that led to Congress passing the Flag Code in 1942.

Per the Flag Code, the flag is never to be used to hawk merchandise. Earlier this week, Nike announced it would not launch its new sneaker with an early-American flag bearing 13 stars in a circle. The company heeded the advice of former NFL quarterback and current Nike endorser Colin Kaepernick, who told Nike that he and others found the “Betsy Ross” flag  offensive because it reflects an era in which slavery existed in the United States. According to the Flag Code, Nike never should display an American flag on its products at all. In fact, the Code prohibits the use of the flag for advertising or commercial purposes in Section 3, and in the very same paragraph that addresses mutilation of the flag.

Likewise, groups including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, also want people to understand the proper way to retire worn, damaged, or dirty flags. The American Legion’s website includes recommendations for the “Disposal of Unserviceable Flags: “For individual citizens this should be done discreetly so that the act of destruction is not perceived as a protest or desecration. Many American Legion posts conduct Disposal of Unserviceable Flag Ceremonies on June 14, Flag Day, each year. This ceremony creates a particularly dignified and solemn occasion for the disposal of unserviceable flags.”

VFW members from Camarillo last month conducted a U.S flag retirement ceremony in Ventura. They followed the protocol to the letter, saluting the retired flags and then burning them in a pit built specifically for that purpose at the Veterans Home of California-Ventura.

VFWs and American Legion chapters offer flag drop boxes in most communities, as do some of the state’s 30-plus Vet Centers. The Vet Center in Modesto obtained an old mail drop box from the U.S. Postal Service, and one of the veterans there employed his skills as an auto body painter to transform it into a depository for unserviceable flags. Many other organizations now have them as well.

“We did the same thing in Elk Grove as an Eagle Scout project,” Sanchez said. “People can swing by and drop them off, and we do a proper flag disposal ceremony.

They’ve retired thousands of flags, including worn-out small stick flags left at the graves of veterans at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, Sanchez said. “People don’t realize you don’t just throw them into the trash can. We retire them the same way.”

It is all about respecting the U.S. flag, and the best way to do that is to read up on it before you wrap yourself in it.

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