Our country’s flag is the symbol of our country and our freedoms, and in many ways it is a large part of our daily lives. On June 14, 1777, Congress passed an act adopting a flag with 13 horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, with red on the top and bottom, and 13 white stars on a field of blue, to be our country’s standard. And so every year on June 14, which happens to be today, we celebrate Flag Day.
Our “Stars and Stripes” is one of the oldest national flags in the world, even older than the Union Jack of Great Britain or the Tricolor of France. It was designed by a committee chaired by Ben Franklin, after consultations with George Washington as the head of the Army, and first unfurled publicly by Washington himself Jan. 2, 1776.
The colors of the flag are frequently seen as representing the very character of our nation. The white in the flag is said to be a living symbol of our country being the “land of liberty.” The red signifies the courage and sacrifices of the nation’s defenders, and the blue represents the loyalty and unity of our citizens.
As new states were added to the union, the number of both the stars and the stripes was increased accordingly. But in April 1818, Congress passed an act providing that the flag should revert to the original 13 stripes, but that a star should be added the next July 4 after the admittance of any new state into the Union.
The guidelines about how to display and use the flag were haphazard all the way until July 7, 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Flag Code. This contains eight sections and multiple subsections describing how, when, and where the flag should be displayed, honored, handled and eventually disposed.
Some of the most interesting regulations for the flag are that it can only be displayed between sunrise and sunset, unless it is properly illuminated during all of hours of darkness, and not displayed at all during inclement weather unless it is an all-weather flag. It should also be raised briskly, but lowered ceremoniously, and should be displayed on the main administration building of every public institution, and on every schoolhouse.
With the extremely limited exception of when church pennants are flown during religious services conducted aboard our naval vessels while at sea, no other flag or pennant may be placed above our flag at any time. If any flags are flown on the same level, our flag must be to the right side of all the others. And our flag may not be dipped to any person or thing under any circumstances, with the limited exception of when a vessel from a foreign country that is recognized by our government dips its flag to a vessel of the U.S. Navy, our naval ship may return the compliment.
The flag is never to be flown with the stars at the bottom, unless there is a circumstance of dire emergency, such as a ship sinking, and it is not supposed to be left on a grave for more than one day. It is also never to be allowed to touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, floor, water or merchandise.
Our national banner is also not to be used for advertising for any purposes, or as a table cover, wearing apparel or articles such as cushions, handkerchiefs or napkins, or as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying or delivering anything. But it is permissible for the flag to be worn as a button or pin.
Even though we have those recommendations, no federal statutes exist that set forth any penalties for any misuse or mistreatment of our flag, which leaves the enforcement of these provisions, if at all, up to the individual states.
Ironically enough, because our nation’s flag is a symbol for liberty and freedom, it actually stands as a principle to allow its own desecration or destruction.
This was the ruling of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Texas v. Johnson, which involved the burning of the flag by some protesters. The court held that our liberties actually allow a person to burn, mutilate or even spit upon our flag as a matter of free speech.
This legitimately upsets lots of people. But upon reflection, people usually understand that we can’t have freedom only for speech and symbolic acts that we agree with. That would soon result in protections only for speech that the government allows, and that would take us in a direction that we do not want to go.
F.A. (Baldy) Harper, the founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, once said “The man who knows what freedom means will find a way to be free.”
Join me in honoring the Stars and Stripes, especially today on its special day. Among other things, that means that we stand, if we are able, when the flag goes by, put our hands over our hearts both when the flag is presented and when we sing our national anthem, and fly it often but appropriately, with the full understanding that this flag is our chief symbol of the freedoms that are the very soul of our country.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com .