This page provides an overview of flag display for local governments in Washington State, including legal requirements, etiquette, and sample policies.
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 certain government buildings. Beyond that, the display of any flag is discretionary.
U.S. and Washington State Flags
Code cities must prominently install, display, and maintain the U.S. and Washington State flags on city buildings (RCW 35A.21.180). The U.S. and Washington State flags also must be prominently installed, displayed, and maintained in schools and court rooms (RCW 1.20.015).
In addition, every city, town, and county must display the U.S. and Washington State flags along with the POW/MIA flags on the designated dates described in the next section.
Beyond that, other local government entities such as special purpose districts are not required by statute to fly the U.S. or Washington State flags, although plenty do.
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 more information, see the Secretary of State's pages on Washington State Flag and Washington State Flag: Display with the U.S. and Other Flags.
State law requires every city, town, and county to display the U.S. flag, the Washington State flag, and the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) flag upon or near its principal building on the following days (RCW 1.20.017):
- March 30 (Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day)
- April 9 (Former Prisoners of War 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)
- December 7 (Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day)
If the designated day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the POW/MIA flag must be displayed on the preceding Friday.
Other local government entities such as special purpose districts are not required by law to fly the POW/MIA flag. (Federal law addresses the POW/MIA flag in 36 U.S.C. § 902, but this applies only to federal facilities.)
When the U.S., Washington State, and POW/MIA flags are flown on a single pole, the U.S. flag should be on top, followed by POW/MIA flag and then the state flag. (The state Department of Veterans Affairs changed this protocol in 2017 - previously, the POW/MIA flag was flown under the state flag.) If there are two poles, the POW/MIA flag should be flown under the U.S. flag while the state flag is on the other pole. For more information, see the Department of Veterans Affairs' POW/MIA Flag Display webpage.
Local Government Flags
Some local governments have established their own flags. The North American Vexillological Association has created helpful Good Flag, Bad Flag guidance providing tips for designing a flag.
Local agencies will sometimes solicit community input or create design contests. Jurisdictions considering such an approach should include language that, by submitting a flag/logo, the applicant (or their parent or guardian on their behalf) surrenders any trademark or copyright to the logo, and that the agency reserves the right to not use the winning logo. We highly recommend you have your attorney review the terms and conditions of the contest.
Once an agency decides upon a new flag or logo, it can register its logo as a trademark with our state’s Office of the Secretary of State (Corporations Division) if the trademark is to be used exclusively within the state or region. Chapter 19.77 RCW governs trademarks issued by the state. As noted on the Secretary of State’s Trademarks webpage, the broadest protection is available through registration with the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office. The state Trademark Registration Form is available through the Secretary of State’s Registration Forms website. We recommend that you contact the Office of the Secretary of State, Corporations Division, for more information.
For examples of ordinances establishing a local flag, see:
Some local governments will display other commemorative flags in recognition of certain holidays, events, or causes. In such cases, it is important that the local government establish and follow a clear policy. For more information, including a summary of the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Shurtleff v. Boston, see our blog post Speaking Versus Regulating — The Government Speech Doctrine.
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 mourn 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 flag 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
- Bellingham Resolution No. 2022-13 (2022) – Declares that flagpoles on city property are not intended as a public forum. Instead, city flagpoles serve as non-public forum for display of flags required by law and/or to express city’s official government speech. Includes commemorative flag display guidelines and legal memo.
- Lacey Resolution No. 11120 (2022) – Updated policy states that city flagpoles are an expression of government speech and not a limited public forum. Includes flag protocol, inventory of city flagpoles and flags to be flown at each location, and council-approved commemorative flags to be flown, including tribal flags.
- Olympia Policy 29 Flag Display – Simple policy stating that the city follows state provisions governing the display of flags outside buildings, and that other flags may be displayed on a permanent or temporary basis within a building with city manager's authorization
- Sequim Ordinance No. 2022-023 (2022) – Flags allowed on City property are limited to the U.S., Washington State, and City of Sequim flags (on a permanent basis), the POW/MIA flag as required by law, and any other flag mandated by federal or state law.
- Spokane Use and Display of U.S. Flag, State Flag, and Other Flags Policy (2018) – City will comply with national and state protocols for flag display and etiquette; other flags or banners may be displayed on a permanent or temporary basis upon issuance of a federal, state, or mayoral proclamation
- Sunnyside Municipal Code Ch. 1.14 – Establishes locations where U.S. and state flag must be displayed, as well as the POW/MIA flag (although note that the POW/MIA dates are now outdated - see RCW 1.20.017). Also contains provisions for lowering flags to half-staff
Ordering Flags Flown at Half-Staff
- Spokane Executive Order 2005-06 – Honoring a national civil rights figure (Rosa Parks)
- Spokane Executive Order 2004-01 – Mourning a tragic accident at water reclamation plant
- 4 U.S.C. Ch. 1: U.S. Flag Code – Rules of protocol for displaying the American flag. See this 2008 Congressional Research Services Report for a good overview.
- Washington Secretary of State: State Flag – Information on the state flag.
- Governor’s Office: Flag Lowering – Readers may sign up to receive an email when the governor directs flags to be lowered to half-staff.
- Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs: POW/MIA Flag – Information on obtaining and displaying a POW/MIA flag.