Which side does the American flag go on when marching or at ceremonies?

The American flag isn’t rare, and it’s not made of precious materials. You can buy a nice one for $10.

But still we treat it with reverence and care normally reserved for historic artifacts or priceless works of art. We make sure it’s properly displayed, we fold it neatly and we never let it touch the ground.

Why? Because while its materials are cheap, what it represents is not. The flag’s more than a flag. It’s a symbol of our country’s ideals. It’s a rallying cry for patriotism. It’s a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifice of the men and women who fought and died to protect the flag and the people who pledge their allegiance to it.

So, yeah, it deserves to be treated well.

Scouts and Scouters know that. We’re some of the most patriotic people you’ll find. We wear the American flag on our uniforms, and “duty to country” is in our Scout Oath.

It’s this reputation for patriotism that explains why packs, troops, teams, posts, ships and crews are often asked to serve as the color guard at community events. Making sure we respect the flag’s traditions is our obligation.

That’s why JayR Seymour with Pack 24 from Bradford, Mass., contacted me. His pack was asked to serve on the color guard for a Harlem Globetrotters game in a week or so. Here’s what he wrote:

In the next couple of weeks my Webelos den and a few of the Boy Scouts have the opportunity to present the colors at a Harlem Globetrotters game for the national anthem. I think this is a great experience for the boys and wanted to make sure that we are presenting the flags in the correct positioning.

Can you please tell me what is the correct positioning for marching the flags out onto the basketball court for the national anthem?

We are marching the U.S. flag, Mass. state flag, Troop 24 Flag and Pack 24 Flag. I have read some information and it looked like from the information and photos, the U.S. flag should be on the far right (as we march), and should always remain on he right. So when we turn to retire the flags, the Scouts do not just do an about-face, but need to pinwheel so the U.S. flag stays on the right.

Guard/ Pack 24 Flag/ Troop 24 Flag/ MA State Flag/ U.S. Flag/ Guard

I want to make sure what I teach the boys the correct method and do not want to show any disrespect to the men and women in the armed forces who may be in the audience.

You input would be much appreciated.

Well, JayR, merely asking the question means you’re respecting our nation’s military. You’re already ahead of the game because you cared enough to ask. And it seems like you interpret the rules the same way I do. The flag should always be on the color guard’s right when marching it in a line with another flag or flags.

For the source, I’ll direct you to Title 4 of the United States Code, Chapter 1,§ 7 – Position and manner of display. It reads:

The flag, when carried in a procession with another flag or flags, should be either on the marching right; that is, the flag’s own right, or, if there is a line of other flags, in front of the center of that line

Once you’re done marching, I agree that you would pinwheel the flags so that the flag remains on the guard’s right, or the audience’s left. That aligns with paragraph k of that same code:

When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

Speaking of, I got this question from Scouter Jon Uzel:

My son recently passed from Cub Scouts into Boy Scouts, to the troop I myself spent most of Scouts in. One of the first things I noticed in the meeting is the fact they have the flags opposite of how we posted them for years. Now I do not want to be “that guy” who shows up and starts “correcting” everything, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s wrong now, or if we had it wrong all those years ago. Can you shed some light on that?

  • Old: American Flag on audience right (SPL’s left)
  • Current: American Flag on audience left (SPL’s right)

Again, in a public auditorium, the flag should be to the speaker’s right, or the audience’s left as they look at the speaker. I would think most Scout meeting rooms and ceremony locations would have a spot for a speaker/leader, so this would apply in pretty much every occasion. So it seems like the “current” way you list above is correct.

Some confusion might exist because at one point some protocol did call for the flag being on the audience’s left. That’s no longer the case, as this post from the National Flag Foundation explains:

Years ago there was a practice (generally in churches) of placing the flag to the left of the speaker, or to the right of the audience, if the flag was on the floor in front of the speaker and between the speaker and the audience. This practice is no longer proper protocol. The flag should be to the left of the audience, defined by the greatest number of people observing it.

Right is right

Just remember, whether marching or setting up an auditorium, right is right — to the color guard’s right and to the speaker’s right.

Hope that clears it up. If anyone has additional insight on flag etiquette, please share it below.

Photo from Flickr:  Some rights reserved by D.Clow – Maryland


  1. Actually, the flag relative to the speaker is a little harder than that. The easy rule is to the right of the “owner” of the flag. If the flag is up with the speaker of behind the plane of the speaker it should be on his right. If it is equal or behind the front row of the audience, it is the audience’s flag and goes to the right of the audience. So, the answer was correct as long as the flag is in front of front row of the audience.

      • Old guidelines had a distinction whether the flag was at the level of the speaker on a stage or the level of the audience. That distinction has been eliminated and the rule simplified.

        For example, here’s a quote from a web page I found :

        In some occasions the flags are displayed OFF the platform and in FRONT OF the speaker (making them a part of the audience). In such situations, the position of the U.S. Colors has occasionally been reversed with the National Flag placed to the audience’s right. The practice has fallen to general disuse, and such reversal of placement was a matter of custom not specified in the FLAG CODE. Should you see such a display, it is NOT necessarily erroneous.

  2. I learned that the flag was always on the right — the flag’s own right.
    The problem arises in churchs: If the cross or altar is in the far end of the church and the flags are places on the floor in front of the congregation, facing the altar, it is on the right side of the congregation (facing the altar/cross/etc.)

    If the altar is in the center of the congregation, again the flag would face the altar so it would appear on the left of the congregation.

    Is that correct?

  3. I think your answer is a bit incorrect as I don’t see whet you referenced in paragraph.K.

    Here’s the COMPLETE reference from paragraph k:

    “When used on a speaker’s platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience. ”

    The question is “what is considered a ‘speaker’s platform'”? This question has come up in my district more than once.

    I have over 25 years background preparing stages for various events. To the stage crew, when someone says “platform”, that means a raised platform. So the interpretation could mean if there is a raised platform, the flag goes to the speaker’s/podium’s right on that raised platform. If there is no raised platform, then the flag would properly be placed in the front of the audience on the audience’s right as you face the front of the room.

    • That’s not how I interpret it. I think you’re connecting the first and second sentences but I see them as distinct thoughts.

      There’s a point about a speaker’s platform and displaying it flat. Then a separate point about displaying it on a staff in a church or public auditorium. You can tell they’re distinct thoughts because it specifies “church or public auditorium.” If they meant speaker’s platform with flags on staffs, they wouldn’t have said “church or public auditorium.”

      All that said, I could be wrong. It’s happened quite a lot!

      But I still don’t see anywhere in the flag code it says the audience’s right is correct. The only time it mentions the words “audience’s right” is about “any other flag.” In other words, a state flag or a Scout flag would go on the audience’s right.

      Am I understanding it, um, right?

      • Interesting. I stand partially corrected.

        If you look at “Your Flag” issued by the BSA (33188 2009 printing), on page 47 figure 4 allows placing the flag on the audience’s right or on the speaker’s right.

        • Again the term is right is right. The diagram that you are looking at shows the flags being displayed from two different prospectives. The Speakers prospective – the flag is to the right of the speaker. Then the other is from the audience’s prospective (then the flag is to the right of the audience). From “Your Flag” issued by the BSA (33188 2011 Printing)

        • The display on page 47 of “Your Flag” show flags that belong to the audience. It specifically says “The color guard sits in the front row of seats with the colors to the right of their group.” This is not the same if the flag is displayed at the front of the audience.

          You need to turn the page to 48 and 49 for those guidelines. Which always shows the flag to its own right unless displayed within the audience or in the back of the room. There are some great Diagrams in the booklet “Your Flag” that is helpful.

    • This line from the National Flag Foundation seems to support my interpretation:

      “Years ago there was a practice (generally in churches) of placing the flag to the left of the speaker, or to the right of the audience, if the flag was on the floor in front of the speaker and between the speaker and the audience. This practice is no longer proper protocol. The flag should be to the left of the audience, defined by the greatest number of people observing it.”

      Edit: I added this to my post above.

    • In our pack meetings we don’t have a “platform” as such. A “platform” doesn’t really need to be physical it can simply be the point from which the speaker is addressing the crowd. We have our America flag and our Pack flag on a double holder with the American on the right and the pack on the left. They are set behind and to the right of the podium from which the meetings are started, announcements made, and of course, the pledge said. A group of our boys, Webelos and Boy Scouts have formed a color guard and the flag for them is always on the right or front and center. They did presentation of the colors at a hockey game with the US flag front and center. The second row contained the Ohio flag, the Pack flag, the Troop flag, and the international Scouting Emblem flag to balance it out and make the US flag more prominent in the front. When they turned to leave the ice, the holder of the US flag moved between the other boys to again be front and center after the about face.

  4. There is an excellent resource available through http://scoutstuff.org, entitled “Your Flag” which contains “Everything you want to know about the flag of the United States of America.” Your local Scout Shop may have it available or you can order it on-line.

    I’ve used it for both the pack and troop with with I am affiliated when instructing or providing materials for flag etiquette. It works well in conjunction with working with the boys on their citizenship requirements.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Some of the information above can be found in the Bear handbook, Boy Scout handbook and a few other basic manuals. The BSA also publishes a book ‘Your Flag, Everything you Want to Know About the Flag of the United State of America’ (33188A) that explains flag protocol including color guards and placement in auditoriums.

  6. Just to add one thought that is not a factor in the case of the Globetrotters game.

    If your color guard is bringing the flags in and then placing them into flag stands on the podium or at the front of the room, the Scouts carrying the flags will typically be required at some point to cross paths to get to the correct positions. When that happens, the Scout bearing the American Flag should cross IN FRONT OF (CLOSER to the audience) any or all of the other flag bearers.

    It is also quite appropriate to “dip” the other flags as they pass by the American Flag as a sign of respect. However, don’t dip flags of other nations. And if flags of more than one nation are present, they should all be of equal size and on flagpoles of equal height. (They deserve respect, too.)

    • Paul, I’ve always seen in Scouts, and learned from veterans, that the U.S. Flag should cross *further* from the audience. That way if there is a color guard, the U.S. Flag doesn’t have to pause and wait for the other flag to get out of the way.

      Do you have anything authoritative that would clarify this?

  7. I had some Girl Scouts call me a couple of years ago in a panic…”what do we do if the Flag touches the ground!!!”. I simply told them to “pick it up”. They wanted to kiss it 100 times…I like that idea as well. Before you get all upset…I only share this story as it is cute. I love the Girl Scouts…I am the proud father of a Gold Award GS.
    As a 20 year Navy Veteran, I feel that as long as you are respecting the Flag, all is good. Do your best to display it properly and care for it.
    One tool I have used to teach Scouts how to properly display the US Flag is their own heart. If the Flag is displayed on a stage with other flags; or is coming at you in a parade with other flags, or is hanging on a wall…your heart will tell you if it is displayed properly.
    Place your hand over your heart like you do when you do the Pledge…that is the side the Flag should be displayed on as you are lookig at it from the audience. If it hung on a wall…that is the side the Field of Stars should be on.
    Even the youngest Scout gets this.
    Thank you all for taking care of our Nation’s Flag. When deployed overseas, there was nothing better than turning the corner and seeing the Red, White, and Blue…my home…no matter where I laid my seabag, that Flag was flying above my home.
    Blessings to all.
    US Navy 1979-1999
    Scoutmaster T727

  8. Another important part as I understand it is when the colors are retired. The scouts are to salute the flag and are to remain looking at where the flag was. They are not to turn their heads and watch it go away.
    Is this indeed correct?
    Does someone have a reference link to this part?

  9. My 1973 copy of the BSA “Your Flag” book has an excellent diagram (page 49) showing the flag positions relative to audience and speaker, and there most definitely were arrangements where the US flag went on the right of the audience. Has this really changed? Guess I’d better buy a current copy and check.

  10. For Many years I have studied the history and development of the flag and the Flag Code, but I have had a question that I have never been able to get an answer to that I could reference or document.

    Title 4, Paragraph 7, Section (m) of the Flag Code states the following, “On Memorial Day, the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a state, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory.”

    So here is the question, what is the proper way to display a flag on a pole in a building or a parade that is supposed to be at half mast? For instance a flag that is being carried in a Memorial Day parade before noon.

    Over the years I have received many answers, but I have not been able to verify or document them. However, the most common answer I have received is that you should take a black ribbon and tie it in a bow on top of the flag staff and let the ends hang half way down the flag to signify mourning.

    Does anyone out there have an answer that I can reference or document?

    Trying to “Live the Oath”

    • That is correct. You add a black ribbon to the top of the pole. The length of the ribbon is equal to the height of the flag. I’ve seen bows and I’ve seen strips of ribbon used, but I’m not sure if it matters (anyone know?). My Girl Scout Flag Unit has only had to do this once and, I’m sure, no one but me knew that you were supposed to do this.

    • That printing (2003) may have outdated information as it references Title 36 US Code. The flag code is now part of Title 4 US Code. Not sure if when it was moved the flag code was changed or not.

  11. Here’s one that will get everyone riled up: what about carrying a huge flag (like 20 x 40+) horizontally in a parade. We do it every year in our Independence Parade. I’ve heard all of the arguments. I’m sure some of you will side the Flag Code that says not to, but I have a response to that. Anyway, let me know what you think.

  12. May I remind everyone also that the US Flag Code is a set of guidelines and not enforceable ordinance? Mikemenn asked about carrying a large flag horizontally; under the Flag Code this is not permitted, but yet at many public events we see the practice commonly carried out, including the Olympics, at football games, and even at the observances following September 11, 2001. There are exceptions to every rule, as they say. How would you have people carry an 800 square foot flag vertically? The weight alone makes it physically impossible unless you’re Clark Kent.

    The American Legion and the VFW are very good sources of information when it comes to getting immediate answers to questions regarding the US Flag, and just love to talk about flag etiquette, especially with young people.

    I am more upset with the attitude of the public in general when it comes to the passing of the flag. I have literally seen people sitting on the ground with a beer in their hand as the flag passed in a parade; as the flag passed, they raised the beer hand in a Hitler-like salute and took a swig. That makes the minor errors in presenting or carrying the flag trivial by comparison — it is down right disrespectful, not only to the flag, but to the Scouts and especially the many military veterans they were marching with.

  13. I have always understood that one should stand and place their hand over their heart when the flag is in motion (those not in uniform). Whenever our flags are brought in or out of the room during our scout meeting, I do not see many adults doing that. Also, the scouts do not salute until after the flag is posted. I was thinking they should be saluting as the flag is in motion, coming into the room?

    • The Scouts that salute after the flags are posted are the Scouts in the Colorguard. Everyone else should have been called to attention/stand/salute/hand over heart prior to the entrance of the flag. The Scouts in the Honor Guard do not participate in the Pledge as they are “guarding” the colors. After they are posted is the Scout’s opportunity to respect the flag(s).

  14. The U S FLAG is always on it’s RIGHT, that is: there is no flag to it’s RIGHT,
    EXCEPT when flags of other nations are flown they are all equal, we usually place the ‘Stars & Stripes’ in the center OR right.
    ‘it’s’ Right is determined by the direction those carrying the flag are facing, or moving
    (They NEVER move backward!).
    The U S Flag never goes behind other flags, when crossing the other flags go behind it.
    I like the term ( used above) “who owns” the flag – it is to the owners right.
    When the flag is on a podium (you stand ON a podium & BEHIND a lecturn), it is owned by those at the lecturn and therefore on their RIGHT.
    When the flag is with (owned by) the audience it is on their RIGHT – it should be clearly in one or the other place. Don’t speak of the flag being on the LEFT of anyone, always on the Flag/Color Bearers right. (You carry on your right or centered in a halter) with your right hand above your left.
    Other flags may be dipped when saluting or the national anthem is sung/played.
    By the way ALL salute During the anthem, military & veterans & ‘uniformed’ (police, firemen, scouts etc,) salute (right HAND to FOREHEAD), civilians: right hand over heart (maybe hat in hand). THANK YOU!

    When moving it should always be at full staff and RIGHT OF, or in FRONT, CENTER
    of others.

  15. It has become common place to see a large American flag carried flat by scouts in a parade, yet the United States Flag Code states in Section 8 (Respect For Flag) that “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free”. How does one reconcile this practice with proper flag etiquette? Are scouts today taught to disregard the U.S. Flag Code?

  16. The flag of the United States of America is subordinate to nothing; it’s relative positioning is one of rank superiority (subordinate is to the left and two paces back… from the military perspective). Any positioning that doesn’t reflect this concept is incorrect.

  17. I’d like to know what the proper etiquette is when you’re at a Flag Day parade. Every float and marching unit carries a flag. One would have to stand throughout the whole parade (and it’s a long one) if one were to pay respect to each and every flag. I only salute the flag (stand, hand on heart) if there is a flags-carrying unit. Help!

  18. Most of the conversation seems to be focusing on which side the flag is displayed, but as long as we are endeavoring to establish correct etiquette, may I point out two other mistakes that I commonly hear:
    1- “Color Guard, retire the colors.” For the record, retiring the colors is a ceremony where a worn-out flag is respectfully burned. There are many variations on wording used in a flag ceremony, and who says them, and while there is no one right way for most of it, there are certainly wrong ways. Unless you really want the Color Guard to set fire to the flag at the end of a meeting, the proper wording is “Retrieve the colors.”
    2- “Color Guard, retreat.” The flag never retreats, and so the Color Guard doesn’t either. A commander in battle situations might order a retreat, but that is the only time. And while some scout meetings might feel something like a battle to the leaders, the flag still doesn’t retreat for us. Color Guards should about face, cross the colors, pinwheel–whatever maneuver you use and they have practiced–to get themselves turned around in an orderly, dignified manner, with the flag on the right, and then the Color Guard forward marches to the back of the room/assembly.

  19. Brendan: Your comments make a lot of sense. My question: what command do you recommend in place of the ” Colorguard, retreat” command?

    • Once they have posted the colors, and the opening ceremony is complete, “Color Guard, dismissed!” I like to add “. . . to your patrols” so that they don’t scatter to just anywhere. Some units have a designated place where the Honor Guard sits through the meeting to make re-assembly easier, in which case something like “. . . to your station/seats” might be proper.

      When the meeting is finished and they have retrieved the colors, “Color Guard, forward march!”

      Some end it at that, and the color guard does whatever they do when they get to the back. I like to keep everyone at attention while the flag leaves, then “Color Guard halt” when they get to the back/past the audience, and end with a formal “Color Guard dismissed/the audience may be seated.”

      Where & how the Color Guard stands after retrieving the colors will determine how you can proceed to send them off. There are several ways I’ve seen it done, and no one more correct than the other. The Color Guard can remove the flags from the bases, then return to formation in the same orientation in which they first presented the flags–facing the front of the room. When that happens, they need to be turned around for a “Forward march.” A simple “About face” results in the flag on the wrong end of the formation, so you have to do a subsequent “Cross the colors” to get it back to the right. A formation pivot works better, since it keeps the flag on the right. Many units have the color guard resume formation with the flags, facing the audience, or the direction in which they will remove the flags (usually the same thing, but not always) which is easier than about faces or pivots, especially for cubs and new scouts. Then all you have to do is tell them when to get going. Perhaps easiest of all, have them all remain, flags in hand, at the point where the flags were posted, facing out toward the audience; when you “Forward march” them, the US flag moves out first toward the back of the room, then the rest fall in behind in their proper order as it passes.

  20. opps…I was trying to include that “retrieve the colors was great to know. I have always wondered about that part of the ceremony.

  21. If they do pin wheel remember that the Colors always stay in one spot. The rest of the flags should pin wheel around the Colors. The Colors never move and always stay at attention until posted.

    • Haven’t heard or read that one before. Haven’t seen pivots executed that way, either, by scout units, ROTC squads, or military honor guards, but there certainly isn’t anything wrong with it; I like the idea. Just make sure you have plenty of room, since executing it that way will require more space. Pivots I have seen always swung around the center point/person, keeping the flag in the place of honor on the right. Evidently your experience has been otherwise–I am curious where you learned that.

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