Cubmaster: “What should we do if the flag touches the ground?”
Multiple Cub Scouts: “Burn it!”
Cubmaster: “No, we pick it up”
When it comes to the American flag, most Scouts and Scouters usually try to go out of their way to be respectful. Sometimes it’s easy to find what to do. Sometimes it isn’t, but there are a LOT of misconceptions and myths out there. How do you know which ones are accurate? Which ones are just made up?
Start by actually taking a few minutes to read the entire Flag Code. It isn’t too long and is largely written in plain language that is easy to understand. Second, take the time to understand that what is official isn’t necessarily customary and vice versa. Lastly, just do a little bit of research before you do activities regarding the flag, but realize there are many myths, many closely held beliefs and traditions, and a lot of sources out there that do not pertain directly to scouting like military procedures. Discuss any disagreements with an open mind and a humble heart…you might learn something! Take information you find with a grain of salt and verify it yourself (even this article!)
Our youth are impressionable and we should take the time to note when we are doing things because of tradition and when we are doing so because it’s the official way. Without such distinctions, we may ingrain in our youth myths and fallacies that may be unnecessarily contentious.
So, with that handled, let’s cover a few of these myths:
Myth #1: Only the military, government, and Boy Scouts of America are allowed to retire flags.
I first heard this one at camp last summer. No. ANYONE can retire a flag. There is no list of organizations that can do so. Fun story: the first US flag to reach the North Pole was in such disrepair that the leader of the expedition, a civilian, raised it and then retired it on the spot…no one will ever beat that record for the northernmost flag retirement ceremony…
Myth #2: The red, white and blue colors of the flag have deep, official symbolism in America.
While Congressional testimony from the era showed there were reasons that some Congressmen wanted certain colors for purposes of heraldry: red for valor, white for liberty and purity, and blue for justice and loyalty, they did not specify it as the official rationale for the choice of colors of the flag. The colors of our flag are not original for a national flag and likely originated with the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain at the time.
Myth #3 If a flag is dirty, it needs to be destroyed.
Flags may get dirty over time, but just because they are dirty doesn’t mean they need to be destroyed. You can clean them via washing them (by hand or machine) or taking them to a dry cleaners.
Myth #4 Flags may be ordered to half staff by any elected official.
Ordering flags to half staff indicates state or national solidarity when mourning the loss of a prominent person or a significant tragedy. According to the law, that responsibility is only allowed to be declared by the President of the United States or a Governor. While local officials across the US have done so, it isn’t technically allowed.
Myth #5 Each of the folds of a flag have a deep, official symbolic meaning.
While people and organizations can ascribe any meaning they wish to each of the folds in our flag, there is nothing in the Flag Code or Congressional Record that indicates any meaning has ever been officially assigned to each fold. One popular script for such folding indicates that there are folds for specific faiths and certain religious figures. Scouts and Scouters should take great caution when using such scripts as they may be offensive and exclusive of those of other faiths.
Myth #6 A flag flown upside down is an official sign of protest
A flag flown upside down usually occurs only briefly when…and believe me this is *ahem* TOTALLY a hypothetical scenario: a new Scout Leader botches the morning flag raising ceremony in front of the entire summer camp. However, a flag intentionally flown upside down is a signal of distress and is the visual equivalent of calling 911 or sending an S.O.S. While it is indeed permitted by US Supreme Court rulings and can be flown upside down in protest, it should not be flown upside down because you feel “the country is in distress right now”. If you’re in an emergency while out hiking or backpacking, such a visual signal might be helpful!
Myth #7 The Texas flag is the only state flag that can fly at the same level as the National Flag because it was once its own country.
Well, this one is wrong on several accounts. First, and as a proud Texan it pains me to admit this, there is no special provision for the Lone Star State flag in the US Code. Second, several other states were separate countries prior to statehood: Vermont, California, and Hawaii, though only Texas uses the same national flag as its state flag. Third, the US Code provides that no flag should be flown above or in a position of prominence ahead of the US flag, but equal height and to the right is perfectly acceptable.
Myth #8 A flag used for internment should never be flown again
Not at all. Nothing in the US Code prevents it, but such flags are often permanently placed in display cases probably leading to the misconception. Likewise, the flag is often unusually large and made of a softer cotton making it unsuitable for any long-term flag flying.
Myth #9 The Flag Code prohibits the display of a United States flag of less than 50 stars.
No. The United States flag never becomes obsolete. Any official American flag, regardless of when it was first authorized, may be displayed and flown until no longer serviceable. In fact, flying a historical flag can be an interesting way to explore the past and discuss the history of the US. At one camp, they raised a historical flag every day and gave a short speech about it.
Test your knowledge
So, you’ve read through these and think, “Yeah…well, I think I know all that and more.” Take our quiz and let’s see what you know about Old Glory!
- Who created the first US national flag featuring stars and stripes?
- George Washington
- Betsy Ross
- Benjamin Franklin
- We’re not 100% sure
- Gold fringe on a flag indicates:
- Nothing in particular…it’s just decoration
- Military jurisdiction over an event
- The property is owned by the US Federal Government
- The country is at war
- Violations of the Flag Code are punishable under the law and court rulings by…
- Citations up to $50
- Fines up to $10,000 and imprisonment of no more than 90 days
- Mandatory dirty looks from your Scoutmaster/Cubmaster/Skipper/Advisor
- Who designed the 50-star flag we use today?
- United States Army Institute of Heraldry. By US law, they are responsible for all official flag designs
- The State of Hawaii was responsible as they were the last state admitted to the Union
- A student doing a high school project, he got a B-
- The Continental Congress, in 1787 they created the official designs for US flags for up to 150 states.
- According to the US Code, American flags unfit for continued service should be
- Cut up into separate colors
- Destroyed in a dignified way
- Burned to ashes or unrecognizable as an American flag
- How many official US flag designs have there been?
- How many official flag designs have had 13 stripes?
- All of them!
- According to the US Code, the US flag should never be…
- Hoisted quickly
- Flown in inclement weather
- Flown at night
- Worn as clothing
- According to US law, in which location is the US flag NOT REQUIRED to be flown 24/7?
- US Capitol Building, Washington DC
- Grounds of the National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge State Park
- On the Green of the Town, Lexington, Massachusetts
- Flag House Square (Albemarle and Pratt Streets), Baltimore, Maryland
- How long should a flag be flown at half staff for the death of a former US President?
- 5 days
- 10 days
- 30 days
- 45 days
- How many folds does it take to properly fold a flag?
- It depends on the size of the flag
Bonus question: Which American flags are never lowered for any reason?
- 4. While the first flag is popularly called the Betsy Ross flag and Ms. Ross personally did seamstress work for George Washington, there is very little historical evidence to show she came up with the design. Several flag designs were created at the same time and, historically, the Betsy Ross flag, Hopkinson flag and the Cowpens flags are all the “first” official flag of the United States Confusion arose in 1893 when an artist, Charles H. Weisgerber, painted the now iconic image of Betsy Ross creating the new American flag as it was draped across her lap and the idea was cemented in American History Lore. However, despite Weisgerber’s painting and a few sworn affidavits from others 90+ years after the flag’s 1777 debut, we don’t have historical records or eyewitness accounts to back up such a claim. At a bare minimum, the history on it is murky and debatable.
- 1. Flags you may have seen carried by the military or on display in government buildings may sometimes have a gold fringe, but this is simply a decoration. Despite internet conspiracy theories to the contrary, there is no legal or traditional basis that such flags indicate a military occupation/jurisdiction and courts have consistently ruled such challenges frivolous.
- 1. While you might get a dirty look from your Scoutmaster, punishments for violations of the Flag Code have effectively been ruled unenforceable by the Supreme Court. In 1923, the Flag Code was originally drafted by representatives of 69 patriotic, fraternal, civic and military organizations in Washington, DC and later codified by the 77th Congress as a guide for flag etiquette. While it IS an official US law, it does not prescribe any punishments for failure to comply. Likewise, the US Supreme Court (controversially) ruled in the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989) that even disrespect to the flag is Constitutionally protected as free speech. While the Flag Code is a guide on how you should treat a flag, it doesn’t mean you’ll be punished for a mistake or even intentional disrespect.
- 3. High School student Robert G. Heft designed the current United States flag as a school project. It took Heft 12.5 hours to sew the flag together and he got a B- because it “lacked originality”. His teacher said he’d raise the grade if Heft could get it to be the national flag. After sending his handmade design to his Congressman, on July 4, 1960, it was officially made into the national flag…and Heft’s grade was upgraded to an A.
- 2. The United States Flag Code OFFICIALLY states “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” As such, burning an American flag, while the most popular and preferred method, is not the only method by which it can be destroyed. Many scout units have noted the pollutants from fires and especially the chemicals released from artificial-fiber flags and have opted for more environmentally-friendly forms of destruction. Others under burn bans have likewise opted for burying or cutting up the flag. There is NO official way to retire a flag as long as it’s done in a dignified manner.
- 2. There have been 27 official flag designs in the history of the US. All had the same basic color scheme
- 2. Only the 15-star, 15-stripe flag has had anything other than 13 stripes. While its presence was brief (1795-1818), it was the flag was flying over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key saw it and was inspired to write the poem that later became the lyrics to our National Anthem. This specific flag was recovered and, despite being worn and battle-torn, is preserved in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
- 4. According to the US Code, the flag should never be worn as clothing.
- 1. According to US law and Presidential Proclamations, there are 8 locations that are required to have the US flag on display 24/7. While the White House is among them, the Capitol Building is not (though Congress flies the American flag 24/7, it is not required to do so by law)
- 3. The Flag Code provides a list of times that a flag should be flown at half staff and their duration as a sign of collective mourning. The time for mourning for a President (current, former, or President-elect) is 30 days, the longest codified in law. The President or Governors can also declare times of mourning and half staff flags at their discretion.
- 4. While several flag ceremonies mention 13 folds, the number of folds can vary based on the dimensions of the flag, the thickness of the material, and even the stiching. While comparable in general dimensions, a 3×5 foot flag is only closely comparable to a 4×6 foot flag. Another example is that flags for funerals are generally slightly longer so they will cover the entire casket. Likewise, while popular tradition and scout materials clearly indicate how to fold a flag, the Flag Code itself does not even specify how it is to be folded, much less any meanings.
Bonus: Those on the moon! While the harsh moon environment has likely bleached the flags white by now, those flags will remain there in perpetuity.
Contributing Author: Written by Stephen Henley
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