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Flag Display Requirements and Protocol

This page provides an overview of flag display requirements, etiquette, and protocol for local governments in Washington State, including relevant statutes and sample flag policies.

Overview

Federal law provides protocols for flying the American flag, and state law provides some specific requirements for displaying the U.S., Washington State, and prisoner of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) flags at municipal or government buildings. Beyond that, the display of any flag is discretionary.

Statutory Requirements for Flag Display

  • Code Cities: Code cities must prominently install, display, and maintain the U.S. and Washington State flags on city buildings (RCW 35A.21.180).
  • All Cities, Towns, and Counties: Every city, town, and county must display the U.S. flag, the Washington State flag, and the POW/MIA flag upon or near its principal building on the following days (RCW 1.20.017):
    • March 30 (Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day)
    • Third Saturday in May (Armed Forces Day)
    • Last Monday in May (Memorial Day)
    • June 14 (Flag Day)
    • July 4 (Independence Day)
    • July 27 (Korean War Veterans Armistice Day)
    • Third Friday in September (POW/MIA Recognition Day)
    • November 11 (Veterans’ Day)
    • If the designated day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the POW/MIA flag will be displayed on the preceding Friday.
  • Municipal, District, and Superior Courts: The U.S. and Washington State flags must be prominently installed, displayed, and maintained in court rooms (RCW 1.20.015).

Flag Display Etiquette

The display of the American flag should generally follow the protocol in the United States Flag Code (4 U.S.C. Ch. 1). However, courts have interpreted the Flag Code to be advisory only; it is a protocol guide and an expression of custom, rather than a law requiring compliance, and there are no penalties for violating it.

In particular, the Flag Code states that:

  • The U.S. flag should be displayed every day of the year, except on days of inclement weather, on or near the main administration building of every public institution.
  • It is custom to fly the U.S. flag only during daylight hours, but it may be flown permanently if properly illuminated at night.
  • The U.S. flag should fly in the highest position of honor, and no flag may be flown higher.
  • The U.S. flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously.

According to the Washington Secretary of State, the Washington State flag should be displayed in the highest position of honor after the U.S. flag and the flags of any other nations. It should be displayed in a higher position of honor than the flags of other states, counties, cities, or any other entity. For complete details on care, display, and use, see the Washington Secretary of State’s webpage on the state flag.

Lowering Flags to Half-Staff

State law provides no guidance on lowering flags to half-staff. Local governments have the authority to lower the U.S. and Washington State flags, along with any other flags, although many local governments have no policy specifically addressing this issue. Generally, it is custom for local governments to follow the lead of the state and federal governments when the president or governor orders flags to be flown at half-staff. Whenever the U.S. flag is flown at half-staff, the state flag should also be flown at half-staff.

The governor orders flags lowered to half-staff to commemorate the passing of notable individuals, as well as the following events:

  • May 15 (Peace Officers Memorial Day)
  • Last Monday in May (Memorial Day) from sunrise to noon
  • September 11 (Patriot Day)
  • December 7 (Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day)

Practice Tip: You can sign up to be notified by email when the governor directs flags to be lowered to half-staff.

Some local governments also lower the U.S. and Washington State flags at their discretion to honor a notable individual from the local community who has recently passed, such as a civic leader or police officer, or to commemorate a tragedy.

When lowering the flag to half-staff, the United States Flag Code says the flag should first be hoisted to its peak for an instant and then lowered to half-staff. At the end of the day, the flag should again be raised to its peak before being lowered for the day. For more details, see the Washington Secretary of State’s page on use during period of mourning.

Examples of Flag Display Policies

As far as MRSC is aware, few local governments in Washington State have adopted formal flag display policies. However, below are a few of the examples we are aware of, including general flag display policies, ordinances establishing a city flag, and executive orders ordering flags to be flown at half-staff.

Practice Tip: When establishing flag display policies, we suggest consulting your local American Legion or other patriotic and veterans’ organizations. These groups often have strong views regarding flag protocol, and variations from standard procedures are sometimes met with strenuous objections.

General Flag Display Policies

Ordinances Establishing a City Flag

Ordering Flags Flown at Half-Staff

Recommended Resources


Last Modified: June 15, 2016