The U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma, has dismissed the federal claims against Caney Valley Schools and denied the motion for a 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 Valley Pub. 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.