Ninth Circuit Finds School District Did Not Fairly Apply Policy Prohibiting Graduation Cap Decorations

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: May 02, 2023

The Dysart School District (District) in Phoenix, Arizona had a graduation policy that prohibits students from decorating their graduation caps. Plaintiff Larissa Waln, a student at the District and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Native American tribe, asked the District to accommodate her religious practice by allowing her to wear an eagle feather on her cap during her high school graduation. The District declined Waln’s request on the ground that the District’s policy permits no exceptions. Despite this, Waln arrived at graduation wearing an eagle feather. District officials prohibited Waln from attending the graduation, but that same day, the District permitted other students to wear secular messages on their graduation caps.

Waln sued the District asserting, among other things, that the selective enforcement of the graduation cap policy violated her rights to the free exercise of religion and to free speech. The trial court concluded that Waln did not allege a plausible claim and dismissed the action with prejudice. Waln appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the trial court and found that Waln plausibly alleged the District selectively enforced its graduation cap policy in violation of her First Amendment rights. Waln’s complaint stated that other students were “permitted to adorn their graduation caps” in violation of the policy, but Waln was not. The complaint points to one student in particular who attended a high school graduation in the District on the same day and at the same venue wearing a “breast cancer awareness” sticker on his graduation cap, in apparent violation of the policy. However, the District did not enforce the policy to exclude this student’s secular message. The District argued that Waln and the other student are not comparable, noting that the two students attended different high schools (within the same District) and attended different graduation ceremonies. For that reason, the District asserted that different school officials made decisions regarding the enforcement of the District’s policy for each student. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the District did not enforce its policy evenhandedly and Waln met her burden in showing that the District’s policy was selectively enforced. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Waln v. Dysart Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2022) 54 F.4th 1152.

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