On June 12, Omar Mateen murdered 49 people and wounded 53 in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. This prompted President Obama to direct that all U.S. flags be lowered to half-staff as a demonstration of remorse and national solidarity; a sad and solemn duty he has had to perform over two dozen times since he took office seven-plus years ago.
Documented instances of flying flags at half-staff occur as far back as the 17th Century, but it’s safe to speculate that for as long as nations, governments and other groups of people have rallied around or believed themselves allied to a flag and what it symbolizes, altering its position has been used as a way to convey honor or remorse. It is also a testament to the power a flag can embody that improper handling, defacement and destruction of flags have been seen in most countries, including our own, as a potent way to convey dissatisfaction and anger.
Few of us know that there is actually a portion of the United States Code that lays out the rules for determining when the U.S. flag can be lowered to half-staff — 4 U.S.C. Chapter 1. The statute, as a whole, includes a wide variety of information about the U.S. flag, including the proper number of stars and stripes, how to add new stars for new states, penalties for defacing the flag (least within the District of Columbia), the text of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the proper position and manner of the flag’s display.
In particular, Section 7(m) empowers the president to order the lowering of the U.S. flag in a variety of circumstances, primarily as a symbol of respect or remembrance upon the death of principal members of the U.S. government, principal members of state or territorial governments, and in honor of members of the armed forces who died while serving on active duty.
The following excerpt from that section is often cited to support the president’s decision to call for half-staff lowering in situations outside of these parameters, such as the Orlando shootings: “In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.”
State and local government officials usually comply with the presidential directive, but not always. For example, the commissioners in Cole County, Missouri, declined to follow President Obama’s proclamation for the Orlando shootings, saying that they “[feel] for these victims and for their families, but … don’t feel this was a time for the flag to be lowered.”
Washington’s governor is empowered to direct the lowering of our state flag and U.S. flags flown at our state government facilities in the following instances:
• Peace Officers Memorial Day;
• Memorial Day;
• Patriot Day;
• National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day;
• In the event of the death of a principal federal or state government official;
• In the event of the death of a state government employee, or a member of the public safety community, killed in the line of duty; and
• In the event of the death of a member of the armed forces from Washington while serving on active duty.
Our governor’s directives also encourage citizens and businesses within the state to join in the observance, but it is not required by executive order or law. You can review our state’s flag lowering rules and the specific orders issued by our governor at the Official Actions section of the governor’s website: http://www.governor.wa.gov/.
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