DENVER (AP) – A federal judge is weighing whether to allow a Colorado high school girl to wear a Mexican and American flag sash to her graduation this weekend after a student sued the school district.
The case is the latest dispute in the US over what cultural prom attire is allowed at commencement ceremonies, with many focusing on tribal regalia.
Attorneys for Naomi Peña Villasano argued at a hearing Friday in Denver that the school district’s decision violated her free speech rights. They also said it was inconsistent for the county to allow Native American clothing but not the Peña Villasano belt that represents her heritage. The wing has a Mexican flag on one side and a United States flag on the other.
“I’m 200 percent — 100% American and 100% Mexican,” she said at a recent school board meeting in Colorado’s rural Western Slope.
“The district discriminates against the expression of a different cultural heritage,” her attorney, Kenneth Parreno, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said at Friday’s hearing.
An attorney representing Garfield County School District 16 argued that Colorado’s requirement that patriotic regalia be allowed is categorically different from wearing a country’s flag. Allowing Peña Vilasan to wear the American and Mexican flags as a belt, Holly Ortiz said, could open “the door to offensive material.”
Ortiz went on to say that the district does not want to prevent Peña Villasano from expressing herself and that the graduate could decorate her cap with flags or wear a sash before or after the ceremony.
But “she has no right to express it any way she wants,” Ortiz said.
A judge is expected to rule Friday on whether Peña Villasan will be allowed to wear the belt at Saturday’s graduation ceremony.
Similar disputes have played out across the US this prom season.
A transgender girl has filed a lawsuit against a Mississippi school district for banning her from wearing a dress to graduation. In Oklahoma, a former Native American student is suing a school district for removing a feather, a sacred religious object, from her cap before her 2022 graduation ceremony.
What qualifies as appropriate prom attire is a source of conflict for Native American students across the country. Both Nevada and Oklahoma on Thursday passed laws allowing Native American students to wear religious and cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies.
This year, Colorado passed a law banning Native American students from wearing such regalia. Almost a dozen states have similar laws.
The legal arguments often boil down to whether the First Amendment protects personal expression, in this case the wing, or whether it would be considered school-sponsored speech and could be restricted for educational purposes.
Bedayn is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.