Monday, December 12, 2022
The Ninth Circuit last week ruled in favor of a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe and graduating high-school student who sought to wear a feather on her cap during graduation ceremonies. The ruling reverses a district court's dismissal of the case and allows it to move forward.
The case, Waln v. Dysart School District, arose when the student asked permission to wear an eagle feather on her graduation cap in honor of her religious beliefs and to pay respect to her ancestors. The district denied permission, pointing to a policy that prohibits students from adding any decoration to their cap or gown. The student showed up at graduation with a feather, and school officials denied her entry. She sued, arguing that the district violated her free speech and free exercise rights, given that other students appeared at the ceremony with secular decorations on their caps.
The district court dismissed the case, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.
The court held that the student plausibly pleaded that school officials treated her differently than other students who decorated their caps with secular messages. The court said that this rendered the policy not generally applicable (under free exercise) and viewpoint based (under free speech).
The court then rejected the district's claim that compliance with the Establishment Clause justified its actions. "[T]he District has not sufficiently met its burden, at this stage, to show that accommodating religious dress for an individual student would have any effect on other students' rights."