When to fly the American flag at half-staff

flag at half-staff

Displaying the American flag requires adherence to certain standards

We're just past Flag Day in the United States and approaching our nation's Independence Day, so many of us are taking our flags out of storage and showing our pride in our country. And that raises questions about the standards to which we must adhere to show respect to the colors, among them: when to fly the American flag at half-staff (referred to as half-mast when referencing flags flown on ships, and half-staff for non-nautical uses). So here's your primer on the tradition of flying the flag at half-staff and the particulars you should know. 

Particulars of and exceptions to flying a flag at half-staff 

When assessing where and how to fly a flag at half-staff, it's important to know the flag is typically flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset unless otherwise specified (such as with Memorial Day*) when the flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon). When flying the flag at half-staff on a vertical pole, you should first raise it to the highest point of the flagpole for a moment and then lower it to half-staff. Likewise, as you lower the flag for the night, you should first raise it to the very top of the pole and then lower it. It's also important to note that whenever the American flag is being flown at half-staff, all other flags should also be flown at half-staff or taken down. 

In some instances, a flag cannot be lowered to half-staff. On such occasions, such as when displaying the flag at home, the American Legion says it is acceptable to attach a black streamer or mourning ribbon of the same width as the flag stripes to the top of the flag instead. Likewise, if a flag is displayed on the wall, you may attach three black mourning bows to the top of the flag, with one in the center and two on the top corners of the flag. 

When to fly the flag at half-staff

The United States flag is flown at half-staff whenever our country or a state is in mourning. This may include the death of a president, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a member of Congress or another public servant or figure; a national tragedy or a designated holiday. Only the president of the United States, a state governor or the mayor of the District of Columbia can order flags of government buildings flown at half-staff. However, private sector businesses may choose to lower their flag to honor any citizen without authorization. 

In addition to dates declared by the president or a state governor, American flags should be flown at half-staff on the following dates: 

•    May 15 for Peace Officers Memorial Day
•    Memorial Day (half-staff until noon)*
•    September 11 for Patriot Day
•    December 7 for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

Legal considerations for flying the American flag at half-staff

You may also wonder about the legalities associated with flying the American flag at half-staff. Keep in mind the Flag Code provides guidance on flying the stars and stripes for citizens, and only public and government buildings and grounds are required to follow the code. That means citizens who do not adhere to the code will not face civil or criminal penalties. 

*According to livescience.com, the flag is flown at half-staff for the first half of Memorial Day to honor those who have died in our wars. It is then raised to full height from noon to sundown to honor living veterans.

flags at half-staffArticle by Johns, Flaherty & Collins attorney David Pierce. To contact him, call 608-784-5678.


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