Raise that flag, America - but not like that: The fine etiquette of flying Old Glory

In a patriotic response to the terrorist attacks, Americans are hanging flags from front stoops, tethering them to car antennas, and taping paper versions of Old Glory to windows. But not all patriots are following the rules.

The proper way to display the American flag is prescribed by the Flag Code, adopted in 1923 as part of federal law. There is no federal penalty for breaking the Flag Code, although some states impose their own penalties.

"An improper display of an American flag is just a breach of flag etiquette," says Mike Buss, who oversees flag education at the American Legion's national headquarters in Indianapolis. "Most times people don't realize these rules exist, but when they do, they go out and fix the problem."

Among the Flag Code rules:

• A flag should be displayed at night only if it is illuminated.

• Only flags made of weather-resistant material should be displayed during inclement weather.

• The flag is flown upside down only as a distress signal.

• The flag should not be part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniforms of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.

But alternative treatment of the flag has become commonplace since the tragedy.

The National Football League and Major League Baseball have both sewn flag patches on their uniforms, and flags were emblazoned on the bases at Shea Stadium in New York last week when baseball games resumed.

Are these breaches of the flag code unpatriotic? Not according to

Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote a spirited piece in defense of the many ways (not always up to code) the flag has recently been displayed.

"The code is so fussy in places it borders on intimidating, and in such passages as 'the flag ... is itself considered a living thing,' " it borders on idolatrous, Mr. Zorn writes. "[The flag is] a symbol of a living thing - of a bold, and so far indomitable, 225-year experiment in liberty and the people, the values and institutions that have, by and large, made it work."

Earl Watson, head of an American Legion post in Greenville, S.C., that handed out 3,500 flags last week, says he and his fellow Legionnaires are never shy about pointing out when someone is violating the code. "If it's someone we can talk to, we try to correct them," he says.

A little-known fact is that the proper way to dispose of an old and tattered flag is to burn it - something many citizens do not feel comfortable doing.

A Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Nashua, N.H., is planning a special flag burn on Veterans Day, knowing the current wave of patriotism will leave a number of worn-out flags in its wake and ready for disposal.

"It's really a beautiful thing," says David Belanger, commander of Nashua's VFW Post 483. "You're escorted by the color guard officers to the burning station. We're going to get the community involved."

Even the most ardent of flag experts, like Mr. Buss, say it is good just to see Americans showing their pride.

What does he think when he sees a flag being displayed improperly? "I drive by it and say, 'Hey, there's another patriotic American.' "

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