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More on the Half-Staff Debate

US flag half-staff at Kitty Hawk NC 9-13-01

The US flag flying half-staff at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Sept. 13, 2001

Yesterday I referenced an article about the debate over lowering the U.S. flag to half-staff in honor of each soldier that dies in Iraq, or permanently until the war is over. I have watched this debate closely and feel the need to interject my thoughts on the subject in more detail.

News stories abound of mayors and city councils making the decision on their own to lower the American flag to half-staff. Some state houses have taken up the debate on the issue, as well.

The Code

The U.S. Flag Code is quite clear on who has the authority to order the American flag lowered to half-staff. That order can come directly from the President of the United States, or in certain instances which are clearly defined, a state governor. Mayors, city councils, and other individuals do not have the authority to make that decision.

Argument from Silence

Some like Tracy Roberts, assistant general counsel with the Alabama League of Municipalities, is quoted as saying,

“The flag is to be flown at half-staff in mourning for designated principal government leaders and upon presidential or gubernatorial order,” said Roberts. “In those kinds of instances, the city council or the mayor could determine that the flag should be flown at half-staff for that city employee.”

He continues …

“The mayor and council control what happens in the city and if they determine that they want to honor anybody by flying the flag half-staff, they certainly can,” he said. “You’re never going to get a presidential or gubernatorial order for flying it at half-staff for a city official.”

Not Exactly

Let’s look at his statements in light of the Flag Code.

In those kinds of instances, the city council or the mayor could determine that the flag should be flown at half-staff for that city employee.

This is simply not true. If they do, they are in violation of the very document that regulates how the flag is shown respect, the U.S. Flag Code. This can be carried to the logical end that if violates their oath of office by defying the President and the Flag Code.

The mayor and council control what happens in the city and if they determine that they want to honor anybody by flying the flag half-staff, they certainly can,

Yes the mayor and council control what happens in the city, except for determining the NATIONAL symbol of freedom be lowered. And lastly,

“You’re never going to get a presidential or gubernatorial order for flying it at half-staff for a city official.”

That is a true statement, and with good reason, there is no provision in the U.S. Flag Code for this behavior. Period.

Some argue that since there is no penalty for disregarding the Code, they can do as they like. I will agree … they can do that, but it is wrong. The Code is in place to standardize the handling of the American flag, and is not without merit or precedence. If it were every man for himself, the Code would not be needed.

Now some are calling for a permanent lowering of the U.S. flag until the war in Iraq is over. That would be a travesty. American servicemen for over two centuries have died in battle to secure the right of the flag to fly high and free, not encumbered at half-staff.

Does this show disrespect for the soldiers that die daily in our current war? Not at all. It shows the utmost respect for the price they paid to fly the American flag at full staff, not in the mourning or defeated position of half-staff.

I fear the controversy will continue, but again, I urge the use of the tool put in place decades ago, the U.S. Flag Code, to be the guiding light in the debate.

Here is Section 7(m) in its entirety:

(m) The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. As used in this subsection–

  1. the term “half-staff” means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;
  2. the term “executive or military department” means any agency listed under sections 101 and 102 of title 5, United States Code; and
  3. the term “Member of Congress” means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.

Flag photo via Flickr, courtesy “Jersey JJ”

One thought on “More on the Half-Staff Debate

  1. […] wrote about the half-staff issue here and here, and had a lot of comments about my views. In this, like other controversies, everyone has an […]

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