Legislation

July 4 warning: Decade-old law bans waving American flag at Arlington cemetery

Visitors looking to pay their respects to America’s fallen this Independence Day by visiting Arlington National Cemetery may be surprised to learn that one of the most common displays of patriotism – waving the American flag – is technically banned on cemetery grounds.

The Washington Post reports that a 2006 law meant to block anti-military protests during Arlington burials has had the broad effect of banning the display of most flags.

“It’s an all-or-nothing proposition . . . Even if the results in practice may feel unjust,” Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post.

The law doesn’t ban all American flags in all circumstances. It allows such displays if they are “part of a funeral, memorial service, or ceremony” – which explains how tiny flags are posted by headstones and markers for Memorial Day and other ceremonies.

But the U.S. code stemming from that 2006 bill makes it “unlawful” in most other circumstances to display “any placard, banner, flag, or similar device” at the cemetery unless pre-approved by officials.

According to the Post, former U.S. Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Mich., helped write the original law in response to protests by members of the Westboro Baptist Church – the members are notorious for showing up at military funerals to jeer grieving families.

The resulting bill banned such protests at Arlington and dozens of other sites – but according to Rowland, was written broadly to avoid violating First Amendment rights.