Is Lighting U.S. Flag Required?

David Aker
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Is lighting U.S. Flag required at night?  The answer is a matter of interpretation and good judgment.  Therefore a direct spotlight on the flag at night may not be required!

At this time of year when the days are short and the hours of darkness are much longer, it seems that questions regarding the lighting of the US Flag are asked more often.

Does the U.S. Flag need to have a direct light shining on it during hours of darkness?  On first analysis, the answer seems to be “Yes”.  The Flag Code states “The flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”[I]

What does the term “properly illuminated” mean?  Upon further research, it is noted that the term “properly illuminated” has not been explained/defined in The Flag Code.  The Congressional Research Service in a publication titled The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions dated February 7, 2011 has explained that “… the dignity accorded to the flag is preserved by lighting that prevents its being enveloped in darkness.” [ii]  (Emphasis added)  Note that this explanation does not require a light to be directly shining on the flag.

In further understanding the concepts of “proper illumination” and “preventing being enveloped in darkness”, it is relevant to note an explanation by the American Legion. This organization states that “Proper illumination is… having a light source sufficient to illuminate the flag so it is recognizable as such by the casual observer.”[iii]  Again, note that the American Legion does not call for a light shining directly on the flag.

Dr. Whitney Smith, a recognized expert (vexillologist[iv]) on the U.S. Flag and flag etiquette has opined that “The Flag Code does not spell out “proper illumination” but common sense suggests that ambient lighting adequately meets the requirement when the colors of the flag can be seen.[v]

The Federal Flag Code does not purport to cover all possible situations. Consequently, different interpretations of various provisions of the Code may continue to be made.  The Flag Code itself, however, suggests a general rule by which practices involving the flag may be fairly tested: “No disrespect should be shown to the Flag of the United States of America.”[vi] & [vii]

Most people would agree that the preferred approach for flying the U.S. Flag at night would be to have a spotlight directly and brightly lighting it.  However, if one does not have the resources to undertake such lighting (and cannot be assured of being able to lower the flag at sunset), should that person not fly the flag?  Or, given the research noted above, is there a reasonable alternative?

Would it not be better to demonstrate your patriotism by flying the flag…but be careful to not disrespect the flag by allowing it to be completely enveloped in darkness?  In other words, if you do not have the resources to have the flag directly lit at night, fly the flag as long as there is sufficient ambient light to allow the flag to be seen at night.

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Lighting the U.S. Flag Required       

[i] 4 U.S. C. §6. (a.)

[ii] The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions, Congressional Research Service, February 7, 2011 (Page 9)

[iii] Let’s Be Right on Flag Etiquette, The American Legion, January, 2002

[iv] Vexillology is the scholarly study of flags

[v] HONOR THE FLAG!, Flag Research Center, Whitney Smith, 1998

[vi] The United States Flag: Federal Law Relating to Display and Associated Questions, Congressional Research Service, February 7, 2011 (Page 1)

[vii] 4 U.S.C. §8.