How one grad took his school to court for banning his eagle feather — and won
It seems that high schools across the country are being put on blast for sexist dress codes — whether they’re body-shaming female graduates or giving graduates post-celebration detention… for wearing sneakers. But for Christian Titman, his graduation dress code struggle is rooted not in gendered treatment, but in his desire to express his Native American heritage. The expression in question: a 5″ long eagle feather, to be worn in his graduation cap tassel. And after a back and forth between his team, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and his school district, he’ll be allowed to wear it in his cap after all.
Titman, who’s a member of the Pit River Tribe (a collective of 11 tribes with ancestral lands in Northern California), initially sued the Clovis Unified School District in the hope that it would allow him to wear the eagle feather, given to him by his father and symbolic of a significant accomplishment, to his graduation. The district cited its strict graduation dress code in a written defense of their decision, with its superintendent claiming that the intent is 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.” She then suggested that Titman could wear his feather — after the main ceremony.
Other items and garments prohibited in the past have included “stoles, leis, rosaries and necklaces.” In other districts around the country with similar codes, Native American students have tried and been denied their right to wear eagle feathers; the AP news item on Titman cites a case from just last month in which a young woman in Tulsa, OK was told she couldn’t walk at graduation if she wore an eagle feather. She too appealed the decision, but her school’s graduation dress code was upheld.
Case seemingly closed, right? Not quite, as Tuesday’s agreement shows.
Titman’s argument hinged on his rights to freedom of expression and religion in the state constitution — and his case caught the attention of several progressive organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California, whose representative claimed that “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.” While the U.S. Supreme Court upholds rules that apply a general ban on religious expression—such as, say, a state district’s graduation dress code—California’s Supreme Court hasn’t decided on that, and the state’s constitution actually guarantees free exercise and enjoyment of religion except if those are “licentious” or “inconsistent with peace and safety.”
AKA, technically Clovis, a public school, shouldn’t have had this kind of dress code in the first place, and all non-invasive expressions of religion should be expressible, period. It was a big claim to make for something that might seem, from an outsider perspective, a small thing, but its the smallness of Titman’s expression that made it even more frustrating for him. And he’s happily won out, and will be free to carry his cultural heritage with him as he publicly celebrates a monumental achievement in his life — a feat with resonance outside of his own case.
The thing is, many religious and ethnic minorities in the United States see their symbols and idols co-opted by people ignorant of cultural significances, whether the co-optees in question are bindis, baby hairs, or headdresses. For modern Native Americans seeking to express pride in their heritage and cultural practices, there aren’t many chances to do so in the world outside of community events and spaces; graduation, for a student active in religious and cultural activities outside of school, is one such non-exclusive space. Colleges have long since embraced the celebratory and creative side of graduation, because graduation should be just that — a celebration. (See here for an example of how it’s done.) And now, Titman can do just that, in the way that means the most to him.