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Carter: Wearing the flag — patriotic, disrespectful or illegal?

Carroll County made national news this week, most of it unflattering, following the controversy involving the removal of Shepard Fairey "We the People" posters at Westminster High School. Plenty has been said already about that, but one of the side conversations that has emerged on social media involving these stories intrigued me, and that is the idea that wearing the American flag is disrespectful, illegal, perhaps even unconstitutional.

One of the posters features a Muslim woman wearing an American flag as a hijab, a headscarf traditionally worn by women of this religion. The poster is a stylized version of a photograph by Ridwan Adhami called "I Am America," taken for the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as "a response to the rhetoric of that time against Muslims and the claims that we weren't American enough."

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The decade-old photo and subsequent illustration was clearly intended to generate a strong reaction, and it certainly has. But today, I want to explore the idea of wearing the American flag and the use of the flag in general.

So is wearing the flag in fact unconstitutional, illegal or disrespectful? There's nothing in the Constitution about the American flag, so the answer there is clearly no. But illegal and disrespectful? Well …

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It was nearly 75 years ago, in June 1942, that the Flag Code was made part of the U.S. Code, an official document containing the laws of the United States of America. According to a 2008 Washington Post article by Marc Leepson, the Flag Code was intended to prevent "patriotism-drenched hucksterism." You know, like all those car dealership advertisements we've seen for the last several weeks promoting Presidents Day savings.

But back to wearing the flag. On this, Section 8 of the Flag Code entitled "Respect for Flag" is abundantly clear: "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery … ."

So is there a difference between using an actual American flag as "wearing apparel," as is the case of the Muslim woman in the poster, or say, an Old Navy Fourth of July T-shirt with the Star-Spangled Banner silk screened on the front?

Per the Flag Code: "The words 'flag, standard, colors, or ensign,' as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America."

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Glad to see legalese was still part of the vernacular in the 1940s, but essentially what that says is your Old Navy shirt, or even a golf shirt that has stars on one sleeve and stripes on the other, are the same as the American flag hijab.

A further look at Section 8 of the Flag Code addresses, among other things, the commercial use of the flag — "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever" — and it also states "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform." Someone should probably alert U.S. Olympic teams, the New England Patriots (add another asterisk to those Super Bowls) and every Major League Baseball team that incorporates Stars and Stripes imagery into their uniforms on Memorial Day and Fourth of July.

So is everyone from flag lapel-wearing politicians to Michael Phelps and his Star-Spangled swim cap to that girl at the beach in her Red, White and Blue bikini breaking the law? Not exactly. Despite being part of an official document of our country's codified laws, the Flag Code doesn't contain any enforcement provisions or penalties for noncompliance. Rather, it has guidelines for proper etiquette related to the flag, essentially rendering your Old Glory underpants no worse than having your elbows on the table at dinnertime or wearing a hat indoors.

Disrespectful? Now that's in the eye of the beholder. None of the above examples, I would think, are intended to offend or disrespect anyone or the United States, rather are symbolic of loyalty and patriotism to the greatest country in the world. What's more American than that?

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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