A California high school senior will file an emergency lawsuit in a bid to force a public school district to allow him to tie an eagle feather representing his Native American heritage to his mortarboard at his high school graduation ceremony.
The student, Christian Titman, is set to attend the Clovis High School commencement ceremony on Thursday, The Fresno Bee reports. (Clovis High is located in the city of Clovis, just outside Fresno.)
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is expected to file a motion on Tuesday seeking a same-day hearing to resolve the issue in some manner prior to the Thursday ceremony.
Titman, 18, is receiving the eagle feather from both his father and grandfather. It’s an important symbol which represents the religion and culture of the Pit River Tribe as well as the senior’s academic accomplishment.
“The eagle feather is not only a signature of my tribe but it also represents the pride I have for my tribe, my people and my heritage,” Titman told the Bee on Monday. “When I have feathers on, I’m connected with ancestors before me.”
Titman’s mother, Renee Titman, is outraged. She claims she has been negotiating unsuccessfully with school officials for a week.
“It is said by our ancestors that the eagle must fly so high in the sky so that he must touch God,” the mad mom told the Bee. She also noted that the feather, which came from the National Eagle Repository, represents “things like trust, worthiness and freedom.”
School officials have offered two compromises. The first is to allow Titman, the graduate, to tie the feather in his hair. The second is to allow the Clovis High principal to bestow the symbolic feather upon Titman when he receives his diploma. He could then wear it.
Titman said he would he agree to the second option if school district officials change district policy to allow students to wear Native American feathers at future commencement ceremonies.
Clovis Unified School District officials say they worry that allowing a Native American student to express his religious beliefs for a brief time during a graduation ceremony could subject future graduations to some flood of religious expression. Such a situation would be intolerable. The most important thing, they suggest, is that all graduates look exactly the same during the graduation ceremony.
In a May 22 letter, school district superintendent Janet Young proclaimed that all graduates must dress identically during commencement proceedings. The only exceptions are a few academic fripperies such as National Honor Society sashes.
“In keeping with the dress code, previous requests by students to wear stoles, leis, rosaries and necklaces have not been approved for wear outside of a student’s gown or on a graduation cap tassel,” Young decreed, according to the Bee.
Young also asserted that graduating Clovis High graduates actually have no right to attend the Clovis High commencement ceremony. Instead, she said, it’s a privilege.
Every graduation year tends to bring out school administrators intent on preventing Native American graduates from religious expression.
In May 2013, for example, a private high school in Alabama denied a graduating senior her diploma and fined her $1,000 because she wore an eagle feather during her graduation ceremony. (RELATED: Poarch Creek Indian Grad Fined $1,000 For Wearing Eagle Feather At High School Graduation)
“They told me that if I wore it that they would pull me off the field,” the class of 2013 senior, Chelsey Ramer, explained.
Officials at the school, Escambia Academy High School, completely relented about a month later, according to Indian Country Today.
In 2014, a group of Native American families convinced officials at Lemoore High School (also near Fresno) to permit students to wear feathers to graduation. California Indian Legal Services was involved in that feather fracas.
Meanwhile, Young, the Clovis superintendent, cited a freshly-released federal case out of Oklahoma which, according to the Bee, allows school districts to prohibit religious expression at taxpayer-funded public school graduation ceremonies. The judge in that case stressed the importance of formality and homogeneity in student graduation garb.