Why You Can’t Take a Flag to a National Cemetery
Stars and Stripes, reprinting with permission an article from the Washington Post, explains why you cannot take a flag to Arlington National Cemetery (or any other national cemetery). This came up as an issue over Independence Day, when a person carrying a flag to Arlington was turned away and was confused why that would happen.
Quoting a section of the article:
The law - 38 U.S. Code § 2413 - emerged in 2006 when former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., grew angry after watching mourners at a military burial face “chants and taunting and some of the most vile things I have ever heard,” Rogers told the Associated Press at the time.
Rogers was referring to protests by members of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who showed up at Arlington burials with posters chiding mourners with messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.” They picketed military funerals, claiming that combat deaths represented God’s anger for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.
In response, Rogers helped write the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,” a bill that made it illegal to protest funerals held at Arlington Cemetery and the 135 burial grounds run by the National Cemetery Administration. In its broad definition of “demonstration,” the legislation specifically made it unlawful to display “any placard, banner, flag or similar device.”
A violation carries a penalty of up to a year in prison.
There was some discussion in the American Civil Liberties Union as to whether the bill would be a slippery slope (ban one form of protected speech and that would result in more bans). In the end though, the bill was written in such a way so it did not violate the I Amendment (banning all flags means the government is not taking a position on what is “lawful” political speech).
The bill explicitly exempts display of small flags on graves in national cemeteries as part of a funeral, memorial service, or ceremony. At Arlington, an Army formation places those flags on over a quarter million graves for Memorial Day.
The bill had widespread bipartisan support, and passed through Congress easily. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.