American Indian Student Challenges Ban on Ceremonial Feathers During Graduation

Christian Titman (Pit River Tribe)

Christian Titman (Pit River Tribe)

FRESNO— On Monday, June 1, a American Indian graduating senior at Clovis High School, in Fresno, California, filed a notice of intent to file an emergency lawsuit to challenge the school district’s refusal to allow him to wear and display a small eagle feather during the graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 4.

The student will only be able to wear the eagle feather, an item with religious and cultural significance, on his graduation cap during the ceremony if a court intervenes. The notice asks for an emergency court hearing on Tuesday, June 2, to decide the issue.

The student, Christian Titman, and his parents have repeatedly asked the school for permission for him to display the eagle feather, presented to him by his father as a mark of his academic achievements, during the upcoming graduation ceremony. However, district officials repeatedly denied their request. Christian, a member of the Pit River Tribe, would like to wear the eagle feather in his graduation cap as an expression of his religious and cultural heritage.

Eagle feathers are sacred to many American Indians and are a symbol of significant accomplishment. State and federal law protect freedom of expression and recognize the religious significance of eagle feathers for Native Americans. California students also have broad free speech rights under the Education Code.

Other school districts, including in Lemoore and Bishop, have allowed Native American students to wear eagle feathers in their graduation caps as religious expression.

The student is represented by the ACLU of Northern California, California Indian Legal Services, and the Native American Rights Fund. The groups seek an injunction, which would allow Christian to wear and display his eagle feather in his graduation cap.

“Clovis already allows California Scholarship Federation and National Honor Society accessories during the graduation ceremony. It should be no different for Christian to wear a feather as a symbol of his academic accomplishment,” said Novella Coleman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

The emergency lawsuit notice comes after the groups sent a letter on May 19 asking the district to reconsider. In a May 22 response, the district lists “acceptable” accessories allowed at graduation and outlines that “students are expected to behave in a manner that respects the formality of the ceremony” and that the ban on accessories is designed to avoid “disruption of the graduation ceremonies.” The district’s formal refusal letter lists other items it bans, such as balloons and noisemakers.

“The district’s refusal to allow a small symbol of religious expression during the graduation ceremony is a misunderstanding of both the spirit and the letter of the law,” said Coleman. “The implication that an eagle feather with religious significance is unacceptable or disruptive signals a deep disrespect from the district.”

The lawsuit will outline protections in the California Constitution for freedom of religious expression and student free speech. A school’s refusal to allow American Indian students to wear and display an eagle feather during graduation violates these provisions of the state constitution and the Education Code.

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