Magistrate Rules Against Caney Valley Senior Wearing Eagle Feather At Graduation

Tuesday, May 19th 2015, 12:57 pm
By: Emory Bryan

A Caney Valley High School student has once again been told she can't wear an eagle feather in her graduation cap.

Hayden Griffith wants to wear the feather as a way to show pride in her Native culture, but the school district said it violates school policy to decorate mortar boards.

On Tuesday after a day in federal court, a magistrate sided with the school district. It means Griffith will not get to wear a feather that she says has special religious significance.

Read The Report And Recommendation

A single feather, from an eagle, could set a precedent - there's never been a federal ruling on whether a dress code trumps religious freedom.

Hayden is about to graduate from Caney Valley High School and she wants to walk with the feather, which came with a Native American blessing from an elder with the Delaware Tribe, on her cap.

Read Griffith's Objections To The Report And Recommendations

Just days before graduation, Griffith fought to force the district to let her wear the feather. Several tribes intervened on behalf of the teen.

The school district doesn't allow decorations on graduation caps and has no exception for religious freedom, or freedom of speech.

Caney Valley Superintendent, Rick Peters said, "We thought we more than substantiated the claims, that we have a policy in place and we're going to adhere by it."

Defendants Response To Griffith's Objections To Report And Recommendation

Hayden testified the eagle feather was a symbol of her religion and accomplishment.

"There's a very strong legal case here under freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act," said Joe West Williams with Native American Rights Fund.

The attorneys believe there's no argument that allowing one feather on one cap opens them up to allowing everything else, but the district argued they're trying to preserve the dignity of graduation by carefully controlling the clothing.

"And we would love to keep our graduation ceremony everything to do with the accomplishments of our seniors and all the things they have earned, in a wonderful event," Peters said.

The ruling from the magistrate will be reviewed Wednesday by a judge who will make the final ruling. It could come Wednesday or it could come Thursday which is graduation day.

Griffith can appeal the ruling by Wednesday.

5/11/2015 Related Story: Fight To Wear Eagle Feather Continues For Caney Valley Student

The Delaware Tribe insists federal law supports Griffith desire to wear the feather during her graduation ceremony May 21st. Attorneys filed an injunction to stop the school's prohibition on the feather.

The school has offered alternatives, saying she can carry it or wear it in her hair, but Griffith considers that disrespectful to the Native American symbol of faith.

Griffith says she is Cherokee and Delaware and that the feather was given to her by an elder in the Delaware tribe  during a blessing ceremony on her 18th birthday.

The attorneys for Griffith said most districts don't fight over it this far.

"Typically school districts, when they see the cultural and religious significance to the native students, they reconsider their positions," they said.

The magistrate ruled the school district has a legitimate interest in restricting decorations on caps, and because they offered to let her wear the feather anywhere but the cap, the policy wasn't too much of a burden on religious freedom.