Archived: S.C. Sheriff Refuses to Lower Flag to Honor Mandela

By Chris Hoenig


Despite a Presidential proclamation, a South Carolina sheriff will not fly the American flag outside his office at half-staff in honor of late South African President and human-rights icon Nelson Mandela.

Rick Clark, Sheriff of Pickens County in upstate South Carolina, announced in a Facebook post, which appears to have since been deleted, that he does not believe the flag should be lowered to honor foreign dignitaries. “I usually don’t post political items, but today is different,” the post read. “I received this notification today, ‘As a mark of respect for the memory of Nelson Mandela, the President orders that the flag of the United States be flown at half-staff effective immediately until sunset, December 9, 2013.’

“Nelson Mandela did great things for his country and was a brave man but he was not an AMERICAN!!! The flag should be lowered at our Embassy in S. Africa, but not here. Our flag is at half-staff today for a Deputy in the low country who died going to help his fellow Deputy. He deserves the honor. I have ordered that the flag here at my office back up after tomorrow’s mourning of Pearl Harbor Day!”

President Obama’s proclamation ordered that flags at all government and public buildings be flown at half-staff until sunset on Monday as a mark of respect. “We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. It falls to us to carry forward the example that he set—to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; and to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice,” he wrote. “For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived—a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” The order also applies to U.S. buildings and entities abroad, including embassies, military bases and naval vessels.

FOX Carolina 21

But Clark ordered his department to raise the flag to its usual full-staff position on Sunday, after flying it at half-staff on Saturday to mark Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. “It’s just my simple opinion that the flag should only be lowered to half-staff for Americans who sacrificed for their country,” the sheriff told a local FOX affiliate. “I have no problem lowering it in South Africa in their country but not for our country. It should be the people who have sacrificed for our country.”

Flag Code

The proper etiquette for flying and handling the American flag was first laid out at the National Flag Conference in 1923 before formally being enacted as code, known as the Federal Flag Code, by Congress in 1942.

According to the code, flags are automatically to fly at half-staff five times each year: Peace Officers Memorial Day (traditionally on May 15), Memorial Day (only until noon), Sept. 11 (designated by President George W. Bush as Patriot Day following the terrorist attacks in 2001), one day during Fire Prevention Week (the date typically coincides with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service in Emmitsburg, Md.) and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (Dec. 7). Flags also fly at half-staff automatically following the deaths of Presidents and former Presidents, Vice Presidents, Chief and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, secretaries and executives of the military and members of Congress. The President also has the authority to order the flags lowered to honor various Americans and foreign dignitaries.

While the government does not have the authority to order private citizens to lower their flags—though they are traditionally “invited” to do so in Presidential proclamations—any and all Presidential orders are to apply to government and public buildings. In addition, governors have the ability to order flags within their state—including those at federal buildings and, again, only on public grounds—lowered to half-staff.

The code, however, is to be used only as a guide and does not include punishments or penalties for failing to comply with a Presidential proclamation.

Honoring Foreign Dignitaries

Nelson Mandela is not the first foreign dignitary to be honored by an American President with an order to lower flags, though the status is not a guarantee of such an honor. In 2005, President George W. Bush ordered flags to half-staff following the death of Pope John Paul II. President Lyndon Johnson did the same following the death of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1965. But President Obama declined to order flags flown at half-staff after the death of former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

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