When are American flags lowered to half-staff? It comes down to honor and respect
Last week Gov. Ron DeSantis said that to honor the life of radio host and conservative icon Rush Limbaugh, he would direct American flags in Florida to be lowered to half staff once Limbaugh's body was laid to rest.
Limbaugh, 70, died Wednesday at his Palm Beach home, a little over a year after revealing he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
For some government officials, giving this honor to such a controversial figure as Limbaugh is too much. While Limbaugh is widely mourned by conservatives as a powerful force in media and politics, critics point out his racist, anti-women and homophobic remarks and his history of ridiculing others.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said Monday she would direct the state offices in her department to disregard any such order.
"I will not lower the flags at my Department’s state offices for Rush Limbaugh. Lowering our flag should reflect unity, not division — and raising our standards, not lowering them," she tweeted.
Fried's comment came after Oakland Park mayor Jane Bolin criticized DeSantis' plans Sunday and called for other state politicians and city managers to protest. Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg, followed suit.
Flags will be lowered this week anyway. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, President Joe Biden will be ordering flags flown at half staff on all federal properties for five days in honor of the 500,000 Americans who have been killed by the COVID-19 virus.
When are flags lowered, and who can receive this honor? There are a lot of questions about this. Here are some answers from the United States Flag Code.
What does it mean to lower the flag to half staff?
Lowering the flag is a sign of respect, mourning or distress. Most English-speaking countries use the term half-mast, but in the United States, that refers only to flags flown on ships.
In the U.S., lowering the flag traditionally signals that the country or a state is in mourning.
When is it appropriate to lower the flag?
There are certain commemorative days when it is customary to lower the flag to half staff: Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day), Memorial Day (last Monday in May, from sunrise to noon), Patriot Day (Sept. 11), National Firefighters Memorial Day (typically a Sunday during Fire Prevention Week), and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (Dec. 7).
The flag is also lowered for the death of principal figures of the U.S. government and the government of a state, territory or possession, and for tragic events.
How long does the flag remain at half staff?
According to the U.S. Flag Code, codified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, flags are to be flown at half-staff on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels of the federal government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its territories and possessions for these periods:
- Thirty days after the death of a president or former president
- Ten days after the death of a vice president, the chief justice or a retired chief justice, or the speaker of the House of Representatives
- From the day of death until the burial of an associate justice of the Supreme Court, secretary of a military department, a former vice president, or the governor of a state, territory or possession.
- On the day of, and the day after, the death of a member of Congress.
For other instances, proclamations will determine the length of time.
Can proclamations be made for anyone else?
Yes. The flag has been flown at half staff upon the death of notable figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the astronauts who lost their lives aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, and even significant figures who were not U.S. citizens such as Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill, and others.
Who can order a half staffing?
Only the president can issue a proclamation for the entire country and U.S. embassies.
State governors can order the flag to be flown half staff for government offices in their state. The mayor of the District of Columbia can issue proclamations for prominent or former members of the District of Columbia or for the death of a member of the armed forces from the area.
Has Gov. DeSantis ordered flags to be flown half staff before?
DeSantis has directed flags to half-staff to honor law enforcement officers killed on duty, Navy members killed in a mass shooting in Pensacola and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to name a few.
Can Gov. DeSantis order a proclamation for flags to be flown half-staff for Rush Limbaugh?
Yes. Florida law directs the governor’s office to develop guidelines, but says flags may be lowered "upon the death of high-ranking state officials, uniformed law enforcement and fire service personnel, and prominent citizens."
The Governor's Office's own flag protocol, however, which was last updated in the first term of former Gov. Rick Scott, doesn't mention prominent citizens but does say "approval for displaying the flags at half-staff ... resides with the Governor."
Can federal or state officials refuse to comply with a half-staff proclamation?
The Flag Code does not provide any penalties or method of enforcement. But any government official refusing to comply with the orders of their superiors may face consequences.
What about the American flags on my house or office?
Federal half-staff proclamations apply only to federal buildings and grounds, to U.S. naval vessels, and to United States embassies. State proclamations apply only to government buildings and holdings.
Citizens are welcome to also observe half-staff days and proclamations with their own flags but any mandate to do so would be in violation of the First Amendment.
As private citizens, you also may choose to fly your flags at half staff to honor local political or religious leaders, honored teachers or sports coaches, or a local hero. There is no authorization needed for private observations.
How do I lower my flag properly?
First, raise the flag briefly to its highest point and then lower it halfway down. If your flag is fastened to a telescoping pole it is acceptable to attach it to the second set of rings.
No other flag may fly higher than the U.S. flag so state flags or other flags should be removed or also flown at half-staff.
At sunset, briskly raise the flag again to the top before lowering it all the way back down.
On Memorial Day the flag is flown at half staff only until noon, and then it raised to the top until sunset.
C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter at @cabridges