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Are lowered flags protest?

Is America's symbol at half-staff for state's dead soldiers a tribute, code violation, politics?
Jeffrey Zaslow

Driving on a highway in Howell, John Ellsworth noticed that a giant flag at an outlet shopping mall was at half-staff. Ellsworth was heading to a funeral home, where visitation was being held for his son, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq.

Just after Ellsworth spotted the flag, he realized it was at half-staff to honor his son, Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth. He recalled receiving a notice from Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who since late 2003 has decreed that flags be lowered for every Michigan soldier killed in the line of duty.

"It was comforting to see that people who didn't even know my son were remembering him," Ellsworth said.

In about 16 states, flags are routinely lowered for fallen home state soldiers, a gesture that is generating controversy among politicians, veterans and citizens unsure about whether and when to lower the flag.

The U.S. Flag Code, adopted in 1942, says governors may honor state "officials" after they die by lowering the flag. Critics say it is inappropriate for governors to label soldiers as officials.

Bruce Butgereit of Kentwood, Mich., national patriotic instructor of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, says he opposes Granholm's call for flying flags at half-staff because it disregards the Flag Code. He believes Granholm's "motivation to order the flag lowered was purely political."

Granholm, a Democrat, denied this, saying she first thought to lower flags when a state employee lost his nephew in 2003 and asked for the tribute at his state work site. That led her to honor all soldiers from Michigan statewide.

Nationally, governors who have ordered flags lowered are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The extent of the flag lowering varies by state. For GOP governors who order flags to half-staff, the terrain is tricky since a state filled with lowered flags could be seen as a slight to the president's policies.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman says, "The only thing that factors into his thinking is paying tribute to our military men and women. It's all about expressing gratitude. There's nothing political."

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