I know we shouldn't fly damaged or faded flags -- but what do I do with old flags? Also, I know the sun shouldn't set on a U.S. flag, so the flag at our house is automatically illuminated at sunset and through the night and the floodlight turns off at sunrise. What are other rules of flag etiquette? By the way, people might be interested to learn that a flag flown over the Capitol can be purchased through their U.S. representative.
Loyal Nye, Kensington
The rules regarding the display and disposal of the American flag can pretty much be boiled down into one edict: Treat the flag with respect.
The Pittsburgh-based National Flag Foundation has details on its Web site, www.americanflags.org, including the text of the U.S. Flag Code, which was written in 1924 and adopted by Congress in 1942. The code is quite specific, outlining how to display the flag in various places, from ship's masts to automobile fenders. It is advisory in nature, stipulating no penalties for falling afoul of it.
And there is some wiggle room. Joyce Doody, the Flag Foundation's executive director, says the flag may be displayed at night as long as something such as a porch light provides enough illumination so passersby can tell it's a flag. A flag may be flown in the rain, if it's an all-weather flag. (Take it down in high winds, though.)
You don't need to destroy a flag if it's touched the ground. You should just pick it up and wash it if it got dirty. (Many dry cleaners launder American flags for free. "It kind of makes me feel good," said George Stratigis of Nu Look Cleaners in Beltsville. "It's just a little thing I can do.")
When a flag is torn or frayed beyond repair, it should be retired respectfully, which means folding it properly then burning it, or cutting it along the stripes and then burning it. You can do it yourself (the foundation's Web site has details on a family ceremony) or contact the nearest post of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop. They often will perform the service.
If you want to purchase a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol, contact your member of Congress. Some 100,000 flags a year are run up flagpoles on the roof of the Capitol.
As for where exactly those flagpoles are and the process by which the flags are raised, the architect of the Capitol's office says it's a secret because of security. Answer Man plans on filing a Freedom of Information Act request to discover what they're smoking over there that makes them think something so innocuous should be secret.
I attended a Pops concert at the University of Maryland. The first number was the National Anthem, for which everyone stood (as they should). But a large number of people put their hands over their hearts while singing the anthem. I know you put your hand over your heart when saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but singing the National Anthem?
John O'Master, Beltsville
Yup, you're supposed to put your hand over your heart, at least according to the U.S. Code, which states: "[A]ll present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart." Those in uniform should salute the flag from the first note of the anthem to the last note.
This seems like a good time to note that Old Glory is back in the news these days, what with the move afoot to allow Congress to ban the "desecration" of an America flag.
I kind of thought that one of the things that made the United States so great was that we were free to do such things as burn flags, if we felt so moved. It obviously wouldn't be anybody's first choice. (I got a parking ticket! I'm burning a flag!) But it did seem like an option if you had some serious free speech that you wanted to exercise.
I'm pretty sure there's something in the Constitution about that.
I haven't noticed a great upsurge in flag desecration lately, so I'm not sure what it is that certain politicians are worried about. What they need to understand is that the flag is a symbol that represents an idea. Ideas aren't like an endangered species or a historic stained-glass window. They don't need protection. Ideas need to be poked and prodded, discussed and argued about. That's what freedom-loving people living in a democracy do.
What I have noticed is that when people start getting overly concerned with the physical manifestations of ideas -- being overly concerned with the paper that a religious text is printed on or the granite it's inscribed on, rather than the sentiments behind those texts, or with swatches of colored fabric rather than freedom of speech -- it starts us on a slippery slope I'd rather not contemplate.
Camp Moss Hollow
There is a lovely flagpole at Camp Moss Hollow, the camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. It stands not far from the dining hall. Here's how to help ensure lots of kids will get to see it:
Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to Family and Child Services, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. Don't send cash. To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. Click on the icon that says, "Make a Donation." To donate by MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.
My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, helped research this column. Send your questions to email@example.com, or 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.