Flag Day in the United States is a holiday of honor and national pride, a day to figuratively” rally round the flag.” Flag Day has its origins in the Second Continental Congress. On June 14, 1777, the Congress adopted a flag design, specified as “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
The original use of this design was to serve as the flag carried into battle (the Revolutionary War was still well under way). The flag was first carried in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. In these early days of the United States flag, it was displayed on naval ships and eventually became accepted and honored by the new United States citizens and by foreign nationals as well. In 1778 Captain Paul Jones commanded the naval warship “the Ranger” on which the flag was placed. Upon arriving in a French port, the crew of the French naval ships saluted the flag.
The original design is credited to Betsy Ross, and contains the familiar circle array of the 13 stars – for the original 13 colonies. Eventually as the country grew, the number of stars had to grow as well. The next version had 15 stars, as Vermont and Kentucky joined the Union. This new flag came into being in 1795. The flag went through numerous iterations as new states were added to the country. However an issue was brewing over how the flag was being misused.
Prior to 1897 a number of opportunists took the nationalistic feelings instilled in the flag's image as avenues to market their wares or political views. The flag became the backdrop to advertising or other questionable purposes. For example a marketer could post an add on a flag and wave it around in a crowd.
An attempt was made to get federal legislation passed that would ban desecration of the flag. After failing at the federal level, Illinois, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania came out with state laws in 1897 that made it illegal to place any kind of markings on the flag, to use the flag in any kind of marketing, or to mutilate, trample, deface, or defile the flag.
It was not until 1968 that flag desecration became federal law. A flag was burned in New York City's Central Park to protest the Vietnam War. Congress then passed a new law making it illegal to knowingly cast contempt upon any flag of the United States by “publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon it.”
This law has been challenged many times since. At the heart of the issue is finding the balance between flag desecration and freedom of speech rights. In a 1972 decision, the Supreme Court held that Massachusetts could not prosecute a person who wore a flag on the seat of his pants. In 1974 the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech overrode flag desecration in a case involving a person that affixed a peace sign over the flag in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
Perhaps the thorniest issue of recent times is the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2002 a Ninth Circuit Federal appeals court decided that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because of the line “one nation, under God.” In 2004, however, the Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case, thereby leaving the inclusion of “under God” intact in the Pledge of Allegiance for most of the country.