US man can wear feather at grad­u­a­tion


A Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dent who sued his Cal­i­for­nia school dis­trict be­cause it re­fused to let him wear an ea­gle feather to his high school grad­u­a­tion will be able to wear the sa­cred item af­ter all.

At­tor­neys for Chris­tian Tit­man and of­fi­cials with Clo­vis Uni­fied School Dis­trict reached an agree­ment Tues­day night al­low­ing him to wear the feather, said Re­becca Farmer, a spokes­woman for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, one of the groups rep­re­sent­ing the 18-yearold stu­dent. She pro­vided no other de­tails.

Ear­lier Tues­day, a judge sug­gested the two par­ties try to reach a res­o­lu­tion.

His lawyers had ar­gued in court that the stu­dent’s rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion and reli­gion in the state con­sti­tu­tion were be­ing vi­o­lated.

Tit­man, a mem­ber of the Pit River Tribe, said he wants to at­tach the 12.5-cen­time­ter feather he re­ceived from his fa­ther to the tas­sel on his cap at the Clo­vis High School cer­e­mony set for Thurs­day. Clo­vis is about 16 kilo­me­ters north­east of Fresno.

He wants to mark his achieve­ment and honor his Na­tive Amer­i­can her­itage, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit filed in state court Mon­day. The tribe con­sid­ers ea­gle feath­ers sa­cred and sym­bolic of a sig­nifi- cant ac­com­plish­ment.

“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,” Novella Cole­man, a staff at­tor­ney with the ACLU ar­gued. “The im­pli­ca­tion that an ea­gle feather with re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance is un­ac­cept­able or dis­rup­tive sig­nals a deep dis­re­spect from the dis­trict.”

In a let­ter to Tit­man’s at­tor­neys, Su­per­in­ten­dent Janet Young said the dis­trict has a strict grad­u­a­tion dress code in­tended to show “re­spect for the for­mal­ity of the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony, unity of the grad­u­at­ing class, and also to avoid dis­rup­tion of the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies that would likely oc­cur if stu­dents were al­lowed to al­ter or add on to their grad­u­a­tion cap and gown.”

The dis­trict pre­vi­ously re­fused to al­low stoles, leis, rosaries and neck­laces on grad­u­a­tion caps and gowns, and its dress code is neu­tral to any reli­gion, Young said. Tit­man could wear the ea­gle feather af­ter the cer­e­mony and take pho­tos with the prin­ci­pal, she said.

The is­sue of whether Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dents can wear ea­gle feath­ers at grad­u­a­tion has come up in other school dis­tricts in the U.S.. Last month, a fed­eral judge in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, ruled an Amer­i­can In­dian stu­dent couldn’t wear an ea­gle feather on her grad­u­a­tion cap.

U.S. Dis­trict Court Chief Judge Gre­gory Frizzell said the school’s pol­icy of pro­hibit­ing all dec­o­ra­tions on grad­u­a­tion caps did not vi­o­late the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s right to ex­er­cise reli­gion freely be­cause it was reli­gion-neu­tral and ap­plied gen­er­ally. The school also had a le­git­i­mate in­ter­est in main­tain­ing the for­mal­ity of the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony and in demon­strat­ing the unity of the grad­u­at­ing class, the judge said. He re­jected the stu­dent’s free­dom of speech ar­gu­ment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion, gov­ern­ments don’t have to make ex­cep­tions to re­li­giously neu­tral laws that are ap­plied gen­er­ally, said Aaron Ca­plan, a con­sti­tu­tional law ex­pert at Loyola Law School in Los An­ge­les. But the is­sue has not been re­solved by the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court un­der the state’s con­sti­tu­tion, un­der which Tit­man brought his law­suit, Ca­plan said.

The Cal­i­for­nia Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees free ex­er­cise and en­joy­ment of reli­gion, but not if it would lead to ac­tions that are “li­cen­tious” or in­con­sis­tent with peace or safety. That would seem to fa­vor Tit­man’s ar­gu­ment that he has a right to wear the ea­gle feather, Ca­plan said.

“I don’t see any rea­son why dis­play­ing an ea­gle feather at grad­u­a­tion could be con­sid­ered li­cen­tious or in­con­sis­tent with the peace or safety of the state,” he said.


In this April 11 photo, Chris­tian Tit­man, with the Tit­man fam­ily rep­re­sent­ing the Mi­wok peo­ple, dances dur­ing the Grand En­try at the 24th Fresno State First Na­tions Pow­wow held at Fresno State’s O’Neill Park in Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia.

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