Confederate Flags Still Displayed at US National Cemeteries

When and How the Stars and Bars Can Be Displayed at US Veterans’ Cemeteries

Man wrapped in Confederate flag in front of SC Statehouse
Supporters Of Confederate Flag Rally At SC Statehouse. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Now that Confederate flags have largely vanished from state capitols and historic sites across the nation, why are they still displayed at many of the 147 veterans’ cemeteries controlled by the U.S. federal government?

Background

In reaction to the June 17, 2015, shooting deaths of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, several state governments ordered Confederate flags removed from their capitol grounds, memorials, and historic sites under their control.

Officials of those states argued that the Confederate flag represented a symbol of slavery and racism.

While the U.S. Department of Justice took no official action on the issue, the National Parks Service (NPS) asked operators of gift shops and bookstores at all national parks, preserves and memorials to voluntarily remove the all standalone Confederate flag items from their shelves. In addition, the NPS decreed that Confederate flags will no longer be flown in units of the National Park System or related areas, except where the flags provide historical context related to the park. However, the NPS did not and has not addressed its policies for the display of Confederate flags at the 14 national cemeteries under its control.

President Obama stated his opinion on the issues in July 26, 2015 address to the people of Kenya. “The fact is it was a flag that flew over an army that fought to maintain a system of slavery and racial subjugation,” he said.

“So we should understand our history, but we should also recognize that it sends a bad message to those who were liberated from slavery and oppression.”

As a result of these state and federal actions, some people wonder why the Confederate flag continues to occasionally be displayed at federal cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery.

When and How Confederate Flags Can be Displayed

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there are currently 147 federally-controlled national cemeteries in which the Confederate flag may be displayed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 131 of these cemeteries. The U.S. Department of the Army, though the Department of Defense oversees 2 major cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery and Soldiers' and the Airmen's Home National Cemetery. The other 14 national cemeteries in the United States are operated by the National Parks Service under the Department of the Interior. An additional 25 American military cemeteries in 16 foreign countries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

The Veterans Administration (VA), the U.S. Army and the National Parks Service (NPS) currently have their own rules and procedures for displaying the Confederate flag in the 131 U.S. national cemeteries.

Department of the Army Cemeteries

In both Arlington National Cemetery and the Soldiers' and the Airmen's Home National Cemetery, Confederate flags no larger in size than the U.S. flags may be placed on the graves of Confederate soldiers only on either Memorial Day or on the day on which Confederate Memorial Day is observed.

Placement and removal of Confederate flags will be done at the expense of those placing them, and all Confederate flags must be removed by the end of the first workday following Memorial Day or the day observed as Confederate Memorial Day. In addition, individuals or groups desiring to place Confederate flags must agree in writing to release the federal government from any responsibility for loss or damage to the flags.

Department of Veterans Affairs Cemeteries

In the 131 national cemeteries operated by the VA, small Confederate flags may be placed at individual gravesites of Confederate veterans, along with a U.S. flag or without, on Memorial Day and on Confederate Memorial Day in those states that designate a Confederate Memorial Day. In states that do not observe Confederate Memorial Day, an alternate date may be chosen with the approval of the cemetery director.

Confederate flags are allowed only in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines are known to be buried.

The Confederate flag may also be flown on a separate flagpole from those used for the U.S. flag only in those cemeteries were Confederate soldiers are buried in mass graves. In these instances, the Confederate flag must always be flown at a lower height than the U.S. flag, as consistent with the U.S. flag code.

The VA will not provide Confederate flags. Any display of the Confederate flag must be requested in advance by a sponsoring historical or service organization, which must also provide the flags. Confederate flags must be placed and removed by the sponsoring organization at no cost to the federal government.

National Parks Service Cemeteries

Under current National Parks policy, Confederate flags may be displayed in its national cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried on two days of the year. In states that observe a Confederate Memorial Day, the NPS cemeteries in those states only may allow sponsoring groups to place small Confederate flags on the graves of Confederate veterans. Small Confederate flags may also be displayed on Memorial Day, along with the U.S. flags on the graves of Confederate veterans.

Groups sponsoring Confederate flags are required to provide, place and remove the flags as soon as possible after the end of the observance, all at no cost to the federal government.

Confederate flags may never be flown on any flagpole in any NPS cemetery.

Any Action Taken in Congress?

After the June 2015 church shootings, the U.S. House of Representatives considered a flurry of amendments to the Department of Interior Fiscal Year 2016 funding bill that would have address the display of Confederate flags at NPS parks and cemeteries. While amendments both favoring and opposing the continued display of the flags were introduced, none were included in the bill as finally approved by Congress.

Similarly, no provisions dealing with the display of the Confederate flag were included in the approved Fiscal Year 2016 spending bills for the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans affairs.

However, a stand-alone bill currently in the House -- H.R. 3007 – introduced by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D – Arizona) would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in any VA national cemetery. So far, the House has taken no action on the bill since it was introduced on July 9, 2015.

Update: House Moves to Ban Confederate Flag

On May 18, 2016, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the FY 2017 Military Construction-VA spending bill that would ban the “draping or hoisting” of the Confederate flag in national veterans' cemeteries, including over mass graves. Persons wishing to place small Confederate flags directly on their ancestors’ graves would still be allowed to do so, but only on Memorial Day and the day designated as Confederates Memorial Day in the states where it is observed.

The spending bill including the amendment was passed by the House on May 19, 2016 by a roll call vote of 295 to 129. The bill has not yet been considered by the Senate.