Federal Laws Pertaining to American Flags & Foreign Flags on US Soil

Angela Ryczkowski

On June 14, 1923, the National Flag Conference adopted the National Flag Code. Prior to this, there were no federal regulations governing the display of the U.S. flag. The Army and Navy developed procedures for handling the flag and it was guidance from these branches about display and procedure that evolved into the Flag Code.

The Flag Code

The Flag Code provides guidance in regard to flag procedure and display.

The Flag Code, although created in 1923, did not become legislation until 1943 when Congress passed the resolution that became Public Law 829; Chapter 806, 77th Congress, 2nd Session. The law included exact rules for use and display of the flag, conduct during playing of the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance and Manner of Delivery. It also set out rules for displaying flags of other nations alongside the U.S. flag.

Subsection 7(c)

Flags are flown at equal height at the headquarters of the United Nations.

Some of the pertinent wording of Subsection 7(c) was added in 1953 in response to the formation of the U.S. It states, "No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services ... No person shall display the flag of the United Nations or any other national or international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior prominence or honor to or in place of the United States ..."

The only exception to this is at the headquarters of the United Nations.

Subsection 7(g)

The wording of Subsection 7(g) in 4 U.S.C. is identical to the original Flag Code enacted in 1942. 7(g) states, "When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size."

Although this may appear contradictory to Subsection 7(c), the usual rule is that if both provisions can not be given effect, the most recent provision is considered the will of the legislature.

Interpreting the Flag Code

The Flag Code is a guide to handling and displaying the flag. It does not impose penalties. For example, flying the flag of another nation at the same height as the U.S. flag is not proper etiquette under the Federal Flag Code but it creates no right of action in private individuals.

The U.S. President can alter, modify, repeal or prescribe rules about the flag but no federal agency has the authority to issue rulings legally binding on civilians, leaving provisions of the code open for interpretation.

The Flag Protection Act of 1989

Title 18 of the United State Code, prior to 1989, contained criminal penalties for certain acts of desecration to the flag. Supreme Court decisions in Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman held that the statute was unconstitutional and ultimately struck it down in 1990.

The Flags of States and Municipalities

The federal flag should fly above state or municipal flags if there is only one pole.

When the U.S. flag is displayed with the flags of states or municipalities the federal flag should be flown above and at the center of other flags. If there is only one pole, the federal flag should be above other flags.