At work I subscribe to an email service from the Governor’s office that notifies recipients anytime the Governor orders flags to be flown at half-staff. The text of one that arrived today went something like this:
Please be advised that Governor Patrick has ordered that the United States flag and the Commonwealth flag be lowered to half-staff at all state buildings from sunrise until sunset on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 in honor of Mayor Kevin H. White of Boston, Massachusetts who died on January 27, 2012.
While the passing of Mayor White is certainly a solemn occasion, I found just a little bit of irony in the timing and substance of this notice given the communal discussion we’re engaged in here in Lowell about the propriety of lowering flags in honor of the passing of local election officials. Gerry Nutter had posts here and here on the topic and Councilor Rita Mercier filed a motion at last week’s council meeting. I didn’t watch tonight’s meeting so I don’t know if there has yet been a reply. According to the minutes of last week’s meeting, the motion and the discussion was as follows:
City Council set policy as standard procedure to automatically lower the flag on city property to half mast when elected officials die. RE: Congress, State Senators, State Representatives, Mayors, City Councilors and School Committee Members. In Council, read and adopted. So voted. C. Martin stated that he is under the belief that only the Governor can order any municipal building to fly flag at half-mast. C. Kennedy stated that this is a situation when you go ahead and do it until you are told not to.
As I said, I hadn’t been paying much attention to this issue until the Kevin White notice arrived today. Curious, I did a little Googling and found that 4 US Code section 7 makes it pretty clear that only the President or the Governor of a state may order the flag lowered to half-staff. I’m not sure if an express Federal law prohibiting something meets the “do it until you are told not to” test but it probably does. Not that I’m criticizing that approach; “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission” has helped me overcome innumerable bureaucratic obstacles. Still, the law’s the law.
Another outfit, USFlag.org, also addresses this issue. When you read their post on half-staff flags, you can tell they’ve been severely criticized for saying “no half-staff” in the past:
[National Flag Foundation] points out these “good-faith misunderstandings” not to criticize or embarrass anyone, but rather to head off a growing trivialization of this memorial salute, and to preserve the dignity and significance of flying the U.S. flag at half-staff. To any readers who may think that NFF is insensitive for raising these breaches of etiquette, please be assured that our motives are pure. We grieve these human loses deeply; however, we believe proper respect for our flag must be maintained – no matter the circumstances.
Everyone involved in this discussion wants to do the right thing which is to appropriately honor those decedents who have rendered valuable service to the city of Lowell. There’s no doubt that working together, appropriate and standardized methods of recognition can be found and implemented.