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Flag use in churches

Last modified: 2006-02-05 by martin karner
Keywords: church | christian | flag use | laying up |
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General comments

I think [the use of flags in churches] depends on what the people of the particular country understand the flag to represent. I suggest a kind of typology of flag behavior having to do with what may be expressed by displaying the flag of a country or subnational division. In some cases the same flag display may express more than one of these messages:

  1. I am the property of the entity symbolized by this flag (flag flying over a national park).
  2. I am under the jurisdiction of the entity symbolized by this flag (civil ensign flown on a merchant ship).
  3. I am an official representative of the entity symbolized by this flag (naval ensign on a warship, flag flying over a government office).
  4. I owe allegiance to the entity symbolized by this flag (private citizen flying his own national flag on his house).
  5. I have an emotional attachment to the place symbolized by this flag (Irish-American flying Irish flag in front of his house).
  6. I respect the entity symbolized by this flag (Brazilian flag flying at White House during Lula's visit).

It seems to me that whether displaying a national flag in a church is offensive or not depends in large part on how the people of the country concerned interpret the messages expressed by flag display. If flying the national flag in country X is commonly accepted as an expression of messages 4, 5, and 6 (or maybe 2), then it would not be seen as offensive to have it displayed in a church. If, on the other hand, people commonly understand the flag to convey only messages 1 and 3, then clearly putting it inside a church would be inappropriate, especially but not necessarily exclusively where there is no established church.

This issue would seem tied to that of whether the flag is viewed by the people of the country as the common property of the populace or the particular property of the government. In the United States, I believe flags displayed in churches are generally understood as expressions of messages 4 and 5 and sometimes 6. Those who oppose the practice generally don't argue that the presence of the flag implies government control of the church but rather that it is inappropriate for a church as an institution to be expressing allegiance (message 4) or even affection (message 5) to any earthly power. The counterargument is that the church *is* its members, and those members do owe allegiance and feel affection to both the nation symbolized by the flag as well as to the religious body.

(In a military chapel in any country, as in the Church of St. Louis at the Invalides in Paris, and at churches in England where military colours are laid up, the display of the flag obviously has yet another connotation, which may be found inspiring or offensive depending on one's preferences.) Speaking of which (sorry this is so long), I'm trying to recall whether a Portuguese flag is displayed in the side chapel of the Batalha abbey where the Portuguese unknown soldiers are entombed. Not that doing so would suggest an exception to Jorge's and others' observations on general Portuguese practice, just a point of curiosity.
Joe McMillan, 25 June 2003

This system is flawed around here [in Portugal] because there is a subtle distinction between formal usage and informal usage. In Portugal there are cases of all the 6 types, and the distinction between two of them is often very subtle. In general, flying the national flag from flag poles or in a staff indoors is considered formal flag display, and implies that who is flying the flag is some sort of state-owned or nationally-relevant institution, particularly involved in the political or administrative life of the country. There are exceptions, and in large numbers: commercial institutions, particularly hotels and such, that fly the flag together with many (or not that many) other flags as a way to show that that is a Portuguese company, despite its international ambience, or that "although we speak other languages, we prefer speaking Portuguese here". The other exception happens when private individuals fly the national flag formally. This is usually a display of ultra-right conservatism and/or militarism, and these guys are always nostalgics of the Salazar regime.

Churches, however, are included in none of these situations. This isn't to say that national flags are absent from every single Portuguese church - some, closer to the power or to the military, might display the flag, but in common churches formal display does not happen, because they are not (or shouldn't be) involved in politics or administration. Displaying the flag informally, on the other hand, is an accepted and relatively common means to show support for the nation and its "heroes". This includes wrapping oneself in the flag, waving it with bare hands or attached to a staff, sometimes hanging it from walls or balconies (especially in sports events), etc. When I was in the university, I shared an apartment with some colleagues and one of them had a flag hanging from the wall in his bedroom. And that is considered natural.

So, to wrap things up, the flag is the same, the way it is displayed makes all the difference.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

Laid up flags

In churches in England military colours are sometimes "laid up" after use.
Joe McMillan
, 25 June 2003

It is indeed common for regimental colours to be "laid up" in the chancel of a church or a cathedral. These flags which bear the historical record of the unit have at some point been blessed by the chaplains. Displaying them usually high up has the practical reason of discouraging theft of an irreplaceable item. However, they are within the chancel which is traditionally the choir and office service space, and not within the sanctuary (that space beyond the altar rail) which should always be free of any secular symbol. The focus in an Anglican church should always be the altar. The presence of national flags anywhere in the church is uncommon as they have no meaning in a religious context and to some always denote a political meaning in addition to representing secular authority. More recently, as conservators are noting the deteriorating condition of the colours, particularly Boer War and First World War flags, churches are encouraged to place the original in climate controlled archival storage and display replicas in their place.
The Venerable John Tyrrell, 5 January 2005

Some five years ago I was asked by Prof (Emeritus) Hugh Smith of Grahamstown, Eastern Cape to make a survey for him of the regimental colours laid up in St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town. He was at that time writing a book on the military colours of South Africa. This I did and found some six of these colours of the various Cape volunteer regiments laid up but hanging so high that it was very difficult to see and describe the designs. They were in various stages of decay as the earliest laying up dated to the 1880s. One was so decayed that practically only the staff with the heading was still visible.

I was then informed by the Rector that it is the tradition in the Anglican church dating back centuries, that laid up colours are never disturbed after their laying up and are allowed to decay until there is nothing left. This tradition was taken over by the Church of the Province of South Africa from Britain. Perhaps one of the British members can confirm this?
Andries Burgers, 6 January 2005

That certainly is the tradition. Queen's Regulations call for colours to be laid up 'in a church or other public building', and note that no public funds shall be spent on them once the colours have been laid up (so it may be a tradition borne out of expediency!). Attitudes vary from one incumbent to another. One local vicar refuses to spend any church funds on restoring or conserving the colours in his keeping, so if it is to be done, it will be up to the Friends of the church to raise the money. Whereas at one time it was seen as somehow 'noble' for a colour to decay to dust over the years, I think there is now a tendency to try and preserve the flags. Since the phrase 'public building' can include the regimental museum, then some colours are being laid up there as well.
Ian Sumner, 6 January 2005

Below are comments contributed by FOTW list members from around the world about the use of flags in their areas. 


Things in Australia vary greatly depending on denomination. The Catholic Churches generally do not display flags, while the Anglican Church continues the Church of England tradition in displaying 'laid up' military colours and sometimes national flags. Evangelical churches tend to display the national flag more, not less: it often connotes allegiance to Australia, which they say is a 'Christian nation/monarchy'. (Our Constitution says otherwise.) On one Australia Day, I went to a Baptist Church, where it displayed a large Australian National Flag /above/ the pulpit (connoting the 'sacredness' of the flag?). It was at first with the Union Jack at our left, but the guys there thought it was incorrectly displayed, so they turned it over so the Union Jack was at our right during the actual service. (It is correctly displayed when the Union Jack is at our left-hand side.) The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) flies a national flag in front of its Sydney Temple (reason 4 in a temporal sense). Greek Orthodox Churches also like to fly the Australian National Flag (reason 4), along with the Greek flag (reason 5) and the Church flag (black double-headed eagle on yellow). The Salvation Army occasionally flies the national flag alongside the Army flag, but usually not. Among the non-Christian religions, only the largest Buddhist temples fly the national flag (reason 4 in a temporal sense) alongside the Buddhist flag. Whatever the religion, the Australian National Flag is always flown at our far left (the flag-bearer's far right) among other flags.
Miles Li, 25 June 2003, 4 July 2003


On, you see the church of St James on the Coudenberg, Brussels (last picture).  Serving not only as the royal chapel but also as the principal church for the Belgian Army diocese, head of which is the present archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels. Some fine royal hatchments in this late 18C, classicist building are admittedly not flag related but  there is a Belgian national flag to the altar's own left (so at your right if approach the altar) which is a rare sight in our country I believe... but understandable given this church's primary functions.  There is also a charming little gonfalon, red with various symbols of St James such as shells, cross and even two 'Moorish' flags with crescent! As to the statue in front of the church, it depicts Godfrey of Bouillon leading his troops in the First Crusade... but as far as I know the flag he brandishes is quite plain (see
Jan Mertens, 27 June 2003


I have never seen one flying a church in Quebec. I think you are right in saying that it is mostly a US phenomenon.
Marc Pasquin, 18 January 2002

 I asked on the Canadian ministers' list if any recalled ever seeing a Canadian flag in a Canadian Unitarian sanctuary. Five have so far reported never having seen one. One remarked that they are rare in the sanctuaries of any Canadian denomination, although some Anglican churches have regimental flags (but not in the chancel).
J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, 6 February 2003

My experience in some other denominations are that flags are quite common in Canadian churches - I have been in Presbyterian, United and Baptist churches with flags up front somewhere - either on the chancel, by the side of it, or mounted from the wall near it. Usually it is the national flag and the provincial flag you see, although in Baptist churches it is sometimes the Christian Flag and the national flag. My travels around churches has not been extensive, but my impression is that it is more common to have a flag in a church than not - especially in churches with older congregations. They are purely a symbol expressing loyalty by the congregation  in general to the nation. The flags are never moved or removed - they become part of the general decoration scheme of the church. In fact they are rarely mentioned or alluded to, except perhaps on Remembrance Day (11 November).
Rob Raeside, 6 February 2003


The situation in France is similar to that in Germany, and probably for the very same reason. Traditionally, flags deposed in churches were mostly war trophies. Francois Henri de Montmorency-Boutheville, Duke of Luxembourg (1628-1695) and Marshal of France, was nicknamed "le Tapissier de Notre-Dame". He won the battle of Neerwinden (29 July 1693) over William of Orange, and captured so many flags that he could make a "tapestry" with them inside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Several flag trophies of the colonial period are still displayed in the St. Louis-des-Invalides' church.

In 1905, the radical politician Emile Combes (1835-1921) expelled the religious congregations from France and proposed the law on separation of church and state, which was passed in 1905 and is still in force. Note that the church and state are not separated in Alsace-Moselle, which were under German rule, so that in Alsace "religious bodies are supported by state funds".

Parochial banners are of course often displayed in churches, but indeed less and less frequently due to theft.
Ivan Sache
, 25 June 2003

Just a side note, the most overwhelming display of nationalism I've ever seen in a church can be found in the Eglise St. Louis, the French Army's church, at the Invalides in Paris. There are more tricolores than I could count flanking the altar and festooned on and around the reredos.
Joe McMillan, 18 January 2002

Church Saint-Louis-des-Invalides is the heart of French military nationalism, so such a display of flags is not surprising. Napoleon and most Marshalls of France are buried in huge tombs in the crypt of the church. You probably also noticed all the non-Tricolore flags hanging from the top of the church. It was a tradition in France (and probably elsewhere) to place the flags captured from the enemy in a church. Francois-Henri de Montmorency-Boutheville, Duke of Luxembourg and Marshall of France (1628-1695) was nicknamed "le Tapissier de Notre-Dame" (Notre Dame's interior decorator) after the battle of Neerwinden (1693), because he captured a lot of flags and brought them in Notre-Dame-de-Paris.
Ivan Sache, 18 January 2002


In Germany, we do not have our flag in church. Maybe because of the split of church and state ("Säkularisation").
Patrick Fischer, 24 June 2003


In Venice (and many other Italian cities) they don't. A vexillologist might dislike that, for there are *really* *lots* of churches in Venice... it would be a sight. They don't fly the national flag either. The only places flying flags here that I can remember of right now, are the municipal buildings, a few schools, and most consulates.
Manuel Giorgini, 18 January 2002


In Vlaggen: Symbool . traditie . protocol Sierksma (1963) apparently tries to present international flag custom, with special note for Dutch custom. At one point he writes: "For the placement of flags in churches (common especially in America and the United Kingdom) or in auditoria to decorate the rostrum or podium, flagstaffs of an expensive kind of wood, with a lance-shaped crowning should be used." In a chapter on flag study he writes: "Really surprised one can be sometimes in Germany and France, but especially in England and Scotland, when one, when entering a church or cathedral, sees countless old, often completely deteriorated flags hanging on lances from the ceiling." Both examples are clear indications that flags in churches are not common in The Netherlands. However, some national churches do fly a flag from a flag pole, in the same way other organisations do.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 26 June 2003

Let me point to this richly illustrated website basilica of St John the Good Shepherd at Laren, NL where we find many examples of flags, and coats of arms too. What interests us here is, of course, the use of procession banners. They can be seen and admired at It is explained, for instance, how fitting the gonfalon form is for use in a procession. Children assist the bearer in holding ribbons tied to the upper part of the banner, thus helping to stabilize it in a gust of wind. At the head of the procession, a cross is borne. On this website, various photos can be found showing the banners 'in action'. Let me now summarize what can be seen on the particular "procession banner" page:

  • St John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the river Jordan
  • Third (lay) Order of St Francis
  • RC Union of Bakers (and related professions) showing St Clemens Maria Hofbauer
  • St Theresa of the Little Child Jesus
  • Gooiland banner for use in procession to Kevelaar, Germany
  • St Vitus, a locally popular saint
  • Pelican in its piety, symbolizing Christ
  • Holy Mary fraternity (or sorority?).

Jan Mertens, 29 July 2003

Northern Ireland

Flag use in Northern Irish churches has been highly controversial.  For example (as reported in the Belfast Telegraph), Orangeman attending the annual Sunday service prior to the Twelfth of July in a mid-Ulster church will be allowed to bring their flags into the premises this year. The decision to allow flags back into Saltersland Presbyterian Church follows an incident last year in which the minister officiating at the traditional service refused to allow the Union flag into the church. Orangemen attending the service were told they could participate in it but that their flags had to remain outside. A church committee has met regularly since last summer with the parties concerned in a bid to quell any further ill-feeling and misunderstanding between them. Finally, after almost a year of discourse, it has been agreed that during future services the Union Flag will be permitted into the church during the religious ceremony.
Phil Nelson, 25 June 2003

Peru and Bolivia

I was really surprised, when I saw the national flags of Peru and Bolivia in churches, when I visited these countries. They were next to the flag of the Vatican, if the pope had visited this church one time.
Patrick Fischer, 24 June 2003


The only place I've seen the national flag and the flag of the Holy See in a church was in the USA. And in Episcopalian churches over here, which are mainly attended by Americans, I suppose they follow the same habit. Interestingly enough, we also have the same habit of playing the national anthem before games, and so on, but more extreme - the last showing of every movie begins with the playing of the national anthem, apparently a copy of the American practice during World War II to boost patriotism, but which even the Americans have done away with but which we still do.
Manuel L. Quezon III, 18 January 2002


Flags aren't seen inside churches in Portugal.  It seems to me that it would bring a state endorsement to whatever activities are taking place inside the church. Separation between state and church means no religious icons in public buildings (except perhaps valuable samples of sacred art, which is inescapable, since that was practically all the art for a long, long time) and no state symbols inside churches. I'm sure I would be shocked if I saw the national flag next to a statue of the Virgin or of Jesus in the cross, and I'm sure most Catholics would be too, even if for different reasons.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

In Portugal I guess the religious bodies are not directly supported by state funds, but at least the state favours the Catholic Church. The simple fact of broadcasting of religious events by the state television is a way to favour the Catholic Church. (Those broadcastings, by the way, are not simple news reports, they are hours-long live broadcastings). Just another example: here where I live the municipal administration supports the religious festivals like St Peter's Day and others. All of that, in just those two examples, is done with our taxes money. In my opinion that goes against our constitutional separation of church and state.
Francisco Santos, 25 June 2003

In general (there are exceptions), flying the national flag from flag poles or in a staff indoors is considered formal flag display, and implies that who is flying the flag is some sort of state-owned or nationally-relevant institution, particularly involved in the political or administrative life of the country. One exception happens when private individuals fly the national flag formally. This is usually a display of ultra-right conservatism and/or militarism, and these guys are always nostalgics of the Salazar regime. Churches, however, are included in none of these situations. This isn't to say that national flags are absent from every single Portuguese church - some, closer to the power or to the military, might display the flag.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

I don't agree.  The exceptions are in large numbers; they are the "norm", not the "exceptions". It's true that Salazar's nostalgics do it. But also the anti-Salazarists fly the national flag formally. Why not? The national flag belong to *all* of us. I'm not religious, I'm not Salazarist, but I think that those who are they have the same right as me to fly the *national* flag.
Francisco Santos, 25 June 2003

It is common in Catholic countries to use gonfalon-like objects literally loaded with symbols in processions and other ceremonies.
Jorge Candeias, 29 July 2003


You might be interested to know that I saw an interesting use for the Saint Andrew's Cross (the Russian Naval Flag) - various churches in Russia, and one here in Philadelphia - St Andrew's - are affiliated with the Navy, and have, as the curtain dividing the sanctuary from the altar, a Saint Andrew's Cross Flag of White with a blue saltire. This was apparently a custom in pre-revolutionary Russia in military chapels (I saw photos of a similar flag situation where an orange and black military flag was used.). Now that the communists are gone from power, things are returning. The old tricolor Russian flag we had in the back of the church from when I was a child was only used for productions of the play "Anastasia" and now it's up on flagpoles again, and not as a protest... Anyway, the Philadelphia shipyards constructed two Russian ships, and the sailors built and attended services at St Andrews until the ships were ready to sail, 105 years ago. The shipyards are gone now. Saint Andrew's has a little museum - with the Russian colored Jack (inverse Union Jack - Red with a St George's Cross, and a superimposed white saltire with the blue saltire on it for St Andrew), a Russian-America Company flag, a simple Russian Tricolor, and of course, a St Andrew's flag.
Fr. John Udics, 5 January 2003


In national orthodox churches, for example Serbian Orthodox Church, the tricolor flag with or without the St. Sava cross is commonly displayed.
Ivan Sarajcic, 25 June 2003


In churches in Spain we have no flag, either Spanish or Catalan or Basque, as far as I know. In Montserrat, perhaps the most sacred land in Catalonia, Catalan flags are seen everywhere outside the church, but never inside. I remember it shocked me quite a lot to see these signs of temporal power in a holy place in Britain.
Jaume de Marcos, 6 February 2003

United Kingdom

It's worth noting, of course, that Britain and other Commonwealth countries have a long history of laying up military colors and standards in their churches. Since colors tend to be thought of as living things, this is sort of like giving them a church burial.
Joe McMillan, 18 January 2002


An observer in Spain reported "I remember it shocked me quite a lot to see these signs of temporal power in a holy place in Britain."

I think there's something in this statement that may explain the American comfort level with the national flag in churches better than the Canadian correspondent's "civic religion" theory. For most Americans, the stars and stripes is not a sign of temporal power, i.e., an expression of the authority of the federal government. This is something I've thought quite a lot about since joining FOTW but I'm still not sure I've sorted it out, so bear with me.

As I see it, the display of a national flag can be intended to convey several distinct messages. The same display may express more than one of these messages. However, different countries tend to emphasize these messages in different ways, sometimes emphasizing one interpretation to the exclusion of others:

  • The person flying this flag is acting under the authority of the sovereign the flag represents. (People who are not representatives of that authority (i.e., private citizens) have no right to fly this flag; "don't you dare fly the Union Jack at sea unless you're one of HM ships!")
  • The place where this flag is flying is under the authority/sovereignty of X. Flags representing other sovereigns may not be flown. ("Just because Slobovian air forces are flying out of a base in Ruritania doesn't mean they can fly the Slobovian flag; that would be an assertion that it's their base, not Ruritania's.")
  • ]The person flying this flag owes allegiance or obedience to the sovereign the flag represents. Its display is an expression of loyalty or submission.
  • The person flying the flag wants to show respect, hospitality, genealogical connection, linguistic facility, etc., etc., having to do with the country the flag represents. ("The Polish flag in the chancel of St. Stanislaus Church represents the ethnic origin of its founding members.")
In the United States, people tend to gravitate to messages 3 and 4. I don't mean that this is anything one does consciously, it's just part of the culture. Flag laws and practices elsewhere are more consistent with messages 1 and 2. In other words, an American Baptist congregation that puts the S&S inside the church is not asserting the government's temporal power over the church (message 1) but expressing the allegiance that the members of the church as U.S. citizens owe to the country. Likewise, a Catholic church that displays the papal flag or a synagogue that displays the flag of Israel is not asserting Vatican or Israeli territorial sovereignty over the property (message 2), merely religious allegiance (message 3) in the first case and ethnic or political sympathy (message 4) in the second. In a different cultural context, all these messages could obviously be misinterpreted.
Joe McMillan, 6 February 2003

Roman Catholic Churches in USA


"Surprisingly to many, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic Churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. As a result, the question of whether and how to display the American flag in a Catholic Church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.

The origin of the display of the American flag in many parishes in the United States appears [to] have its origins in the offering of prayers for those who served during the Second World War (1941-1945). At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones -- especially those serving their country in the armed forces -- as a way of keeping before the attention of the faithful the needs of military families. This practice has since been confirmed in many places during the Korean, Viet Nam and Iraqi conflicts.

The Bishops´ Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary (see note) itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter."
located by Ned Smith, 23 June 2003

The practice of putting US flags in Roman Catholic churches can be traced the American Civil War. It seems that they followed the lead of the Episcopalians in New York. Since then it has become an off and on practice. In the extreme I have seen churches with the US and state flags as well as the Diocesan and parish flags. There is no written church policy, it is left to individual pastors. The trend is to remove them from about the altar. There is no connection to a Papal visit. The possibility of a Papal visit is signified by an umbrelino granted to a basilica.
Jim Ferrigan, 24 June 2003

Methodist Churches in USA

In looking over a Google collection of commentary on this issue in the US, I found one Methodist making the argument that the stars and stripes should be displayed in the church as a reminder that the protections provided by the US Constitution are what enable Methodists (and others) to worship as they please. (This is against what seems to be the position of most Methodist clergy and leaders who have written on the subject, who maintain that display of the flag inappropriately renders unto Caesar the things that are God's.)

This may sound strange if not irritating to non-Americans, who will rightly observe that it is not only in the United States that the right to freedom of religion is respected. But to many Americans-- and especially to American Protestants--this sounds perfectly correct. Americans learn from an early age that one of the main reasons that our ancestors came to this country was to find freedom of religion. I am fully aware that this is historically a gross oversimplification. Whether it is true or not, however, scarcely affects how this "fact" affects the way Americans look at these issues. Americans are traditionally brought up on stories of religious persecution in 17th century Europe and taught to value the progressive development of full religious freedom in the colonial period (with tolerance in Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and Rhode Island contrasted favorably with governmental enforcement of established religions in places like Massachusetts and Virginia. This process is seen as culminating in the adoption of the Bill of Rights in connection with the ratification of the Constitution, the very first clause of that Bill of Rights reading, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

This gets back to something that occurred to me as I read Jorge's last post on this subject. Because the Bill of Rights essentially settled the fundamental question of church-state relations in the US over 200 years ago, it seems to me that Americans are much less sensitive to the potentially negative symbolism conveyed by the presence of the national flag in a church. If our religious life had been dominated for much of our history by a single established church that enjoyed special privileges from the government and that limited the ability of other religions to worship as they chose, I imagine we would be more alert to the implication that the presence of a flag in church signifies governmental endorsement of the religious proceedings and teachings being propagated there.
Joe McMillan, 26 June 2003

Episcopalian in USA

Anglican (actually, Episcopalian) churches in the US fly the Episcopalian flag, which is English-influenced, at least. I've never seen the US flag beside, but that's not to say it isn't done.
Nathan Lamm,18 January 2002


In Catholic usage, the sanctuary is the area immediately surrounding the altar, not, as in many Protestant denominations in the United States, the entire worship area of the church.
JoeMcMillan, 24 June 2003
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