In the United States, as in many other nations, there are a series of rules governing the display and disposal of the national flag. These rules are referred to as flag protocol. Although violation of these rules does not have legal repercussions, it is hoped that they will encourage respectful handling of the flag. More than simply a piece of fabric, a national flag represents the nation as a whole, and is an important symbol of national identity. The following flag protocol applies to the display of the American flag within the United States. Other nations have their own protocols involving the display of their national flag, along with the flags of other nations.
In general, the rules of flag protocol are very simple and easy to follow. In most cases, respectful handling of the flag includes common sense measures such as not allowing it to touch the ground. Unless a flag is being flown in the vicinity of militant neighbors, minor violations are unlikely to cause outrage, especially as the flag is often flown with a noble intent.
According to American flag protocol, an American flag must never be permitted to touch the ground. If the flag inadvertently touches the ground, it should be gently washed with soap and water. When displayed outdoors, if the flag is in the middle of a street, it should be suspended with the union, or field of stars, facing either north or east, depending on the alignment of the street. When displayed from a building, the flag should be set out union first.
The American flag should never hang lower than the flag of another nation. If the American flag is being flown with other national flags, the flags should be flown at equal height and should be the same size. If the American flag is being displayed with state or other flags, it should be flown higher, and should be raised first and lowered last. If displayed while crossing staffs with another flag, the staff from which the American flag is hung should be placed over the other staff, and the American flag should be to the left of the viewer.
Flag protocol also dictates that flags should not be flown at night unless properly illuminated, and that when the flag is flown at half staff it should first be fully raised and then lowered to half staff. When flown upside down, the flag is a symbol of distress. When displayed over a casket, the flag should be draped so that the union is located on the upper left hand corner, and it should not be allowed to touch the ground or lowered into the grave.
The American flag should not be written on or otherwise defaced, and should not be allowed to become tattered or dirty. For this reason, many companies make all weather flags which are designed to withstand poor weather conditions. If a flag will be flown outdoors and exposed to sunlight and rain, an all weather flag should be purchased. If a flag becomes damaged, it should be disposed of properly. The proper method of disposal for an American flag is respectful burning. A number of public service organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Elks, and Boy Scouts are happy to assist with the proper disposal of flags.