U.S. Navy Ship Hoists Christian Flag Above American Flag

The USS Arlington is described this way on its Facebook page:

We are the Navy’s eighth amphibious transport dock ship in the San Antonio class. Named for Arlington County, Va., where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, which killed 184 people, the USS Arlington is one of three ships named in honor of the heroes and victims of September 11.

Very symbolic.

So what’s up with this image and description just posted on the page?

Quartermasters Seaman Rashaun Plowden and 2nd Class Mary Carlton raise a church pennant above the American flag during worship services aboard USS Arlington (LPD 24) on Jan. 13, 2013.

Who knew Navy ships were Christian…?

I don’t care if a group of Christian naval officers hold a worship service for themselves. They have that right.

But I’ve never seen a Muslim or atheist or Hindu or Jewish or any non-Christian symbol hoisted above the American flag before, certainly not on one of our Navy’s vessels. (I’d love to be proven wrong if this is a normal occurrence for people of other faiths…)

In fact, one city’s website explaining how flags should be flown says that “When other flags are flown from the same halyard, the U.S. flag should always be at the peak.”

***Update***: Reader David writes:

Im writing to you as a former member of the Royal Navy of just over four years, this is actually correct procedure when flying this flag (THE USN and the Royal Navy follow the same flag procedures), this is because its not actually a Christian flag as such but is that of the Chaplaincy and as such is considered a non combatant and is protected during war, so in theory a ship flying this flag on a Sunday cannot be fired upon during war as part of the Geneva convention.

The reason its flown above the US flag is due to the flags neutrality and therefore superseding that of the Country’s flag indicating that it is neutral at this point, ie it overrides the Stars and Stripes.

I wish my fellow Atheists would do some research in matters like this rather than rush to conclusions.

Curiously enough, the image/caption were removed from the ship’s Facebook page. Which seems like a strange thing to do if everything is on the up-and-up.

***Update 2***: David pointed me to this site which states:

When it is displayed from the same flagpole with another flag — of a state, community, society or Scout unit — the flag of the United States must always be at the top except that the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a Naval chaplain on a ship at sea.

That’s a weird rule… but it seems like whatever happened on the boat was within the regulations.

(Thanks to Lorelei for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Philbert

    In before the “I’m too cool to care about flags” crowd.

    The city’s instructions are quoting the federal regulations. Whoever is responsible for this incident aboard ship is (or should be) aware of these. I’d be very surprised if other religious flags are accorded the same privilege.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrayself Jason R Self

    US Flag Code (http://www.usflag.org/uscode36.html)

    (f) When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last. No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the United States flag’s right.

  • Stev84

    The US Flag Code has to be one of the most ridiculous pieces of legislation anyone has ever devised anywhere. And while I don’t agree with putting Christian flags on military ships, it’s not binding.

  • ggsillars

    Apparently, under the US Flag code it is permissible to fly the church pennant above the Ensign (US flag) on US Navy ships during services conducted by US Navy chaplins. See Section (c) in the linked document: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/4/7. Also there appear to be two church pennants: one Christian and on Jewish. http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us%5Enchrh.html.

  • notta nun

    You’re right, who knew? I’m disappointed to read this in the U.S. code, because it’s wrong… although it doesn’t specify Christian…

    §175. Position and manner of display
    (c) No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for the personnel of the Navy.

  • Bert Russell

    Just so you know, this is proper flag etiquette in the Navy. Check it out here:

    “When it is displayed from the same flagpole with another flag – of a state, community, society or Scout unit – the flag of the United States must always be at the top except that the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a Naval chaplain on a ship at sea.”


    It’s still wrong thou and should be changed.

  • C Peterson

    It may not be legally binding in general, but I believe it is binding on the military (possibly legally) because it is a part of military policy. Much of the U.S. Flag Code is derived from military protocol in the first place!

  • Jonas

    I am Ok with them flying the flag during their service.

    However — The flag should be below the US Flag per tradition.

    And to onlookers watching from afar it could send the wrong message.
    Of course let other religious worship services fly fags if they want to.

    Christian Privilege yes but others should be granted the same.

  • curtst

    I hope those sailors get into some trouble for this. It is bad enough putting the christian flag up there without representing other belief structures, but to put it above the US Flag? Horrible…Shows how soft US military leadership has become that members of the military don’t even know how to display the flag correctly.

  • michael both

    “Of course let other religious worship services fly fags if they want to.”
    Unintentional spelling error could be taken in so many ways. :)

  • C Peterson

    Of course let other religious worship services fly fags if they want to.

    Don’t give those Westboro wingnuts any ideas!

  • C Peterson

    Nice research. You’re right, it should be changed. What we need is a Facebook image of a naval vessel with a crescent and star pennant flying above the American flag. That ought to get people’s attention!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Arrr! I DEMAND that the U.S. naval Flying Spaghetti Monster pennant be put aflyin’ over the ensign whenever thar be a service fer His Noodliness! Arrr!

  • Johnl

    I was in the Navy back in the early 90′s and have raised the church pennant myself. Only in port and only if the ship was conducting church services. Not all ships have chaplains. All it’s saying is that religious services are going on. Please be respectful and maintain silence about the deck. This is SOP for every single ship in the fleet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1594697551 Patrick Tinkham

    Which is fine as far as this goes, but does the Navy allow the other respective flags of other faiths under similar circumstances?

  • MichaelBrice

    Perhaps we should contact Dr. Sheldon Cooper (of Fun with Flags fame) for a definitive answer.

  • Stev84

    Flying a flag just because a religious service is going on is a sign of unhealthy flag fetishism too

  • Johnl

    I really don’t know or, frankly, care. I think larger ships may hold islamic services. I know in boot camp, they provided Iams for the muslim recruits but on both ships I served, those that were religious (wasn’t many) were christian. My first ship (FFG) was too small to even have a chaplin
    but had a bible study group that met on the messdecks after working hrs. My second ship (CG) had one. He was a hell of a drinker! Came on a lot of Subic Bay pub crawls. It’s intended to be a generic religious symbol. If you want to change it, I really don’t care about that either. But this isn’t some new sneaky christian infiltration thing. It’s been going on since the Navy was formed I think. Again, it’s attended to alert other ships and personnel that church services were being conducted and to please be “respectful”. We never were compelled to attend and it was only flown in port and only during the services. Once they were concluded, it was hauled down. SOP throughout the fleet.

  • https://agoldstardad.wordpress.com/ Fozzy

    If this had been ANY other flag the normal hysterical sources would have had a shit hemorrage by now

  • Justin Miyndees

    Nothing presumptuous about that.

  • Jasper

    Yeah, I too don’t care about people who swore oaths to uphold the constitution breaking their oaths because they’ve been in staggering violation of the constitution for so long that it magically becomes okay.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    For what it’s worth, that’s certainly a Christian flag, but it’s not the Christian flag:


  • Michael Jenkins

    Very symbolic to have the Christian flag above that of your country. A country that prized separation of church and state. By abandoning those base tennants, should they be declared a pirate or renegade ship?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1594697551 Patrick Tinkham

    The problem is that it is generically Christian. Not fully generic. Surely, you would agree that a cruciform symbol does not connote Judaism or Native American shamanism???

  • starskeptic

    It’s a pennant, not a flag.

  • Ken Dunn

    There’s no conspiracy, here, just a long standing naval tradition (spent a good chunk of my life in the naval services).

    Stop with the histrionics, please. The commentariat’s ability to take offense or to throw a hissy-fit do not meaningfully contribute to swaying leadership to change an old tradition, that, on reflection, probably should be modified.

    Be calm. Be rational. Mostly, know what you’re talking about before mouthing off.

  • Navy Vet

    I’m surprised anyone cares about this flag thing, when underway every night at 2155 a Christian prayer (usually different every night, but not always) is broadcast ship wide over the ship’s PA / loudspeaker system (called the 1MC in the Navy).

  • GeraardSpergen

    No flags on my submarines underway. I don’t think we ever had any “services” although there was an active God Squad who would proselytize and probably … meet.

  • starskeptic

    I have more problems with the idea that it seems necessary to have a U.S. flag during religious ceremonies.

  • Aikage

    Whoever is responsible for this should be punished.. and made to take another round of sensitivity and equality training. As a former sailor and a current atheist this is disgusting to me not to mention very against the rules.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    To be fair, they are flying the atheist pennant when atheist services are under way.

  • DougI

    Kick those traitors out of the military.

  • Pseudonym

    How exactly does this violate the constitution?

    I take the argument above that a pennant shouldn’t be flown above the US flag. Are you arguing that the mere existence of military chaplains, or providing space and time (and I note that the case under consideration is only allowed when the ship is in port) for personnel to practice a religion if they have one, violates the constitution somehow?

  • Pseudonym

    As starskeptic rightly pointed out, this is not a flag. I should point out that there is no such thing as “the Christian flag’, merely a flag which a small but vocal minority in some remote part of the world (I believe it’s known as the “United States”) call “the Christian flag”.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    True, but since everyone else described it as a flag, that’s the term I used.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    It’s like when evangelicals and fundamentalists decided that teh word “Christian” meant only conservative Protestantism. Thus, “Christian music,” “Christian movies,” “Christian bookstores,” all refer to that particular subculture.

    So it is with the “Christian flag.” Obviously, this flag doesn’t represent all Christians, but it’s been designated the official one. It’s taken over by sheer force of will, I suppose. Google “Christian flag,” and it’s the only image that comes up.

  • JD

    In 1975 a Jewish pennant was authorized. History seems to indicate a ‘church pennant’ tradition is centuries old — an indicator to other vessels that services were underway, essentially a ‘pause’ to combat ops, though obviously not used that way anymore.

    Story and Jewish pennant picture here: http://christianfighterpilot.com/blog/2011/02/23/uss-bataan-raises-church-pennant-for-burial-at-sea/

    As others have said, you would help your credibility if you learned a little before cueing your atheist outrage over seeing a cross.

  • starskeptic

    If you really want to mix your religion and government – pennants are the way go: much more sneaky, almost casual.

  • Pseudonym

    It makes sense that that would be what comes up if you google for that phrase. Nobody except US conservative protestants would use the phrase “Christian flag”.

  • Pseudonym

    Leaving aside the rhetoric, this is a damn good point.

    One of the reasons why we can’t have nice things is that well-meaning people will insist on jerking their knees in public without knowing the facts first. It’s the same reason why the US can’t have effective gun control: gun control advocates insist on going on talk shows without knowing anything about guns first.

  • Steve

    When I was assigned to a U.S. MIlitary ship, the Church Pennant is the only pennant flown above the National Ensign during services conducted by a chaplain at the time of the services.

    If the service was Jewish and conducted by a Jewish Chaplain, then a Jewish Pennant would be flown above for the duration of the services, then hauled down.

    I have not seen any other pennants but Christian and Jewish.

  • Zachary_Bos

    Perhaps MAAF could propose emending the policy, so that there is a single kind of pennant flown during congregational (secular Humanist as well as any kind of theist) services. Make it blue and white, in a geometric pattern without any sectarian iconography.

    This would be a proactive gesture of inclusiveness and tolerance.

  • Patterrssonn

    I’m thinking it likely has a lot more to do with the millions of dollars spent by the arms industry on lobbying and PR.

  • Blacksheep

    Why would you “hope that soldiers get in trouble” – especially when they are following the rules?

  • Blacksheep

    It’s 100% by the book, so you shouldn’t be so judgemental. “Should be punished…” ? You want your way and also vengeance? What happened to open minded?

  • starskeptic

    How would she have known that if she hadn’t googled it?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’ve heard some people buy Windows computers, and don’t bother to install a different browser, or change their default search engine from Bing.


  • starskeptic

    Next you’ll be telling me the Earth isn’t 6,000 yrs old…

  • oceans0ul

    Oh look it’s Major Jonathan Dowty. lol

  • godlessveteran

    No symbol of any religion has any place above the U.S. flag. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a military reg-violating lunatic like you to understand that, Dowty. “Officer and a gentleman”, my ass. Stop harrassing the enlisted troops.

  • godlessveteran

    The treason photo appears to have been removed from their FB page.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Well, of course. To the extent that people are even aware that there is a Christian flag (I think I only took notice for the first time when I watched Jesus Camp), this is the only one that anyone knows about.

  • Blacksheep

    Holding religious services on a navy vessel does not in any way violate the constitution. You would like to ban religion, the constitution does not allow for that. We’re not an atheist country, we’re a country for all.

  • Question Everything

    People do care about that – particularly the folks at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/ – I’m pretty sure they’d be more than happy to talk with you and others who have similar stories, as they’re for the Constitution, and against the promotion of any religion above another.

  • Jasper

    “I take the argument above that a pennant shouldn’t be flown above the US flag”

    Or how about not using government property to endorse religion at all? If this was a city hall flying a Christian flag every Sunday to let everyone know that church services were in progress, lawsuits would be raining down upon them.

    I’m not thrilled with the chaplaincy either. But if people want to get together and do religious stuff on their own, that’s fine. The line is crossed when the ship itself is used to endorse it, or to warn everyone else to be quiet and enforce deference to the services.

  • Jasper

    I’m concluding that you weren’t speaking to me since nothing you said had anything to do with my comments.

  • TheBlackCat13

    Even though I disagree with what they are doing, it is not treason, far from it. They are not making war against the U.S., nor are they providing material aid and comfort to its enemies.

    Treason is a word that gets thrown around way too much these days, especially when the founding fathers were very careful to make sure it was very specifically and narrowly defined only apply to actual armed warfare against the U.S. (in fact it is the only crime defined in the constitution).

  • Pseudonym

    Those millions of dollars buy a lot of expertise. Anti-gun-control advocates know what they’re talking about when they talk about guns (even if they know nothing about criminology, social science or any number of other relevant things), and hence make gun control advocates look stupid when they clearly don’t.

  • Patterrssonn

    Not sure how spending millions on politicians and the PR industry constitutes expertise especially as one of the goals of arms industry lobbying is to prevent government sponsored research into the effects of gun violence.

  • Pseudonym

    The analogy is closer to a religious service being held inside the hall, and a banner or sign was placed outside while the service is in progress. I’ve been to a few events in town/city halls (not religious ones, admittedly), and it is pretty much common practice to indicate that a public or semi-public event is happening inside. I wouldn’t say that such a practice means that the council “endorses” a swap meet, or whatever the event is.

    Moreover, I’ve participated in examinations held inside town halls. Such events are typically accompanied by a request for everyone else to be quiet. It is unlikely to enforce deference to the examinable subject matter.

    There is still one key difference between a city/town hall and a ship, though: The ship is the (temporary) home of the sailors on board. The US military has a duty of care to its members, and there is also some good research that indulging the “spiritual” needs of military personnel if they have them has operational benefits.

  • Jasper

    Yes, I forgot that most of the sailors are floating around in the sky around the ship, or swimming around in the waters surrounding the ship, and are so infantile that they cannot keep a schedule, and know when to float back to the ship to go to their room to do their services… and that’s why we have to blithely fly a Christian flag outside the ship, so they can all see it from the outside.

    At best, the point your bring up would have a sign posted just outside the room, or maybe on a community billboard that anyone can use.

    Do they have flags for every possible religion or philosophy? Will they request people to be quiet at any possible time throughout the week?

    Even if the boat was their home, that doesn’t mean we can set aside the constitution merely because it’s inconvenient. The flag is not a necessity by any stretch, nor is the silence. Like a Muslim trying to have a career as a pig farmer, if the sailors cannot handle the fact they aren’t allowed to take over the ship for their personal religious ends, too damn bad.

  • Pseudonym

    Do they have flags for every possible religion or philosophy?

    As other comments here indicate, they have two pennants (they are, once again, not flags) in current use. Nobody has offered any evidence to suggest that they would not be willing to make more as needed.

    That, by the way, is an important proviso. If you remember that pretty much everything is “as needed”, then most of your objections have very simple responses. For example:

    Will they request people to be quiet at any possible time throughout the week?

    At the moment, it’s not an issue. If it becomes an issue, then the decision could be revisited.

    Even if the boat was their home, that doesn’t mean we can set aside the constitution merely because it’s inconvenient.

    To read some of the comments here, what’s inconvenient about the constitution is that it doesn’t prevent military chaplains or religious services held on board ships.