A Clovis High School senior who wants to wear an eagle feather at his graduation ceremony this week plans to file an emergency lawsuit against Clovis Unified School District, which he says is prohibiting him from wearing the cultural, religious and academic symbol that was given to him by his father.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California says it will file a complaint in Fresno County Superior Court on Monday on behalf of Christian Titman, 18, and his family. The legal rights organization plans to file a motion on Tuesday asking for a same-day hearing in advance of Titman’s commencement ceremony on Thursday.
Titman’s mother, Renee Titman, says she’s been in conversations with the school district for weeks about allowing her son to wear the feather on his graduation cap. The feather, which will be presented to Christian Titman on Thursday by his father and grandfather, is an honor that symbolizes her son’s academic achievement and cultural heritage as a member of the Pit River Tribe.
“It is said by our ancestors that the the eagle must fly so high in the sky so that he must touch God,” Renee Titman said in an interview Monday. “(The feather symbolizes) things like trust, worthiness and freedom.”
The feather is of special significance in part because it comes from an eagle Christian Titman’s father, Gary Titman, was given by the National Eagle Repository. Eagles are protected by federal law but Native Americans who are enrolled in federally recognized tribes are eligible to receive dead eagles or parts of birds found in the wild. Bald and golden eagles are considered sacred by many tribes.
Unfortunately, Renee Titman said, several requests to tie the feather to Christian’s cap were denied.
She said the school district has offered a compromise allowing Christian to tie the feather in his hair or be presented with the feather by his high school principal when he receives his diploma. Her son is agreeable to the first option, she said, so long as Clovis Unified changes its policy to allow all students to wear their eagle feathers in the future.
But a policy change wasn’t offered, she said, which is why she’s pressing forward with the emergency lawsuit. A legal intervention is the only way her son will get to wear it, she said. And it could set a precedent for families in the future.
“Why should we fight it and have another go right in our footsteps and do it again?” she said.
Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the district is “puzzled” by the latest action from the family and ACLU. From the beginning of the district’s conversations with the Titmans, Clovis Unified has tried to find a solution that both honors Christian’s heritage and maintains the district’s formal graduation dress code.
In addition to offering Christian Titman the option to receive the feather along with his diploma, the district said he could tie the feather onto his cap once all the graduates turn their tassels from one side of their cap to the other, a tradition that symbolizes they’ve graduated. He could then wear the feather for the remainder of the ceremony, she said.
“We feel this option honors the cultural intent of the eagle feather as a right of passage,” she said.
Graduating wasn’t a sure bet for Christian Titman, who said he’d failed several classes and had lots to catch up on this past semester. But with hard work he was able to make up lost credits, he said, enough to earn his diploma on time.
Walking across the stage on Thursday will be a meaningful moment, one he said would be more special if he was able to wear the symbol that connects him most with his cultural upbringing and spiritual beliefs.
“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,” he said on Monday. “When I have feathers on I’m connected with ancestors before me.”
This story may sound familiar — last school year around this time several Native American families in Lemoore pressured school officials at Lemoore High to allow their sons and daughters to wear their eagle feathers at graduation. Officials relented after California Indian Legal Services in Eureka got involved.
ACLU staff attorney Novella Coleman said she’s seen several school districts faced with this question and, “They usually comply because it’s so easy to just let students express themselves in this situation.”
It’s also a matter of Christian Titman’s right to free expression, she said.
“It’s very clear when the government is restricting protected speech it has to actually be based on a rational basis and it can’t just assume what the government finds distasteful is going to be disruptive,” she said.
In a letter sent in late May by the ACLU, California Indian Legal Services and the Native American Rights Fund to Clovis Unified, the legal groups argue federal policy recognizes the significance of eagle feathers to many Native American tribes and that state education code protects students’ right to religious expression.
The groups also say Clovis Unified’s own school board policies seem to protect students’ religious rights.
A May 22 response letter from Superintendent Janet Young said all students are required to follow a particular dress code at formal graduation ceremonies. Few adornments are allowed, including a National Honor Society sash and three other academic-related pins and cords.
“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 wrote.
Young also said attending graduation is a privilege, not a right, and that the dress code applies equally to all students.
A new federal district court case could support the district’s argument. Young cites a May 20 case in Oklahoma where a judged ruled in favor of a school district with a policy similar to the one at Clovis Unified. In that case, the judge said prohibiting the feather wouldn’t cause “irreparable harm” to the student and was in line with the district’s goal to promote a sense of unity and formality at the commencement ceremony.