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Graduation Cap Feathers to Be Allowed

Graduation Cap Feathers to Be Allowed

An update to the ruling on feathers in graduation caps.

Back in April of 2016, I wrote about the graduation cap feather case in the Caney Valley School District:

The U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma, has dismissed the federal claims against Caney Valley Schools and denied the motion for permanent injunction with respect to the school district’s refusal to allow a senior student to wear an eagle feather in her graduation cap. Griffith v. Caney ValleyPub. Schs., 15-CV-273-GKF-FHM (N.D. Okla. 01/05/16).

At the root of the dispute was Caney Valley’s policy prohibiting students from wearing decorations on their graduation caps. Plaintiff Hayden Griffith had been denied her request to wear the feather attached to her cap during the 2015 high school graduation ceremony, even though she asserted that it was closely connected to her religious beliefs in the sacred nature of eagle feathers. School leaders gave Hayden the option to wear the feather elsewhere, such as in her hair, on a necklace or carried in her hand. She did not take them up on this, because according to her religious beliefs, an eagle feather, when worn, must be worn on the head and cannot be dominated by something else worn on the head.

Griffith filed suit against the district just before graduation, seeking a preliminary injunction so that she could wear the eagle feather at graduation. In the lawsuit, she alleged that the district’s policy violated her first amendment free speech and religious freedom free exercise rights.  The motion for injunction was denied when the court concluded that she failed to show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case.  

In granting Caney Valley’s subsequent motion to dismiss the suit, the court in addressing the free speech issue agreed with the district’s contention that graduation attire is school-sponsored speech and the policy prohibiting decoration on the caps is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. The court concluded that the district’s policy promotes unity, discipline and respect for authority, among other things. The court was unpersuaded by Hayden’s assertion that the school had created a limited public forum for student speech on their caps and gowns.

With respect to Griffith’s free exercise claim, the court found that the district’s policy was neutral with respect to religion, and generally applicable in that it does not make distinctions based on religion. In response to Griffin’s allegation that the policy was applied or enforced against her for religious reasons, the court stated that the facts of the case showed the exact opposite, pointing out that before graduation, students were informed in writing that “hats were not to be decorated at all.”  The court also noted the district’s efforts to accommodate Hayden’s request in alternative ways.

Now, two and a half years later, it appears the climate is about to change. Vian, a district in which more than half of the students are Native, has a policy prohibiting alterations or additions to caps and gowns.This year, student and Cherokee citizen Natalie Briggs asked the school board to allow Cherokee students to wear a sacred eagle feather on their graduation caps. Her request was backed by tribal officials, who spoke on her behalf at a recent board meeting.  

Attorney General Mike Hunter issued a letter to the district wherein he recommended they allow the wearing of a ceremonial feather on the graduation cap. In his letter, Hunter said that although the Griffith case held that banning eagle feathers at a graduation ceremony did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, he believes Oklahoma law provides a broader religious freedom.  

Upon receipt of Hunter’s letter, the Vian superintendent has indicated that the district will follow the AG’s advice and work with the students who wish to wear their sacred feather.

Terri Thomas

Director, Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC. Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS).

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