The Midway Independent School District has offered to settle a lawsuit alleging it violated the religious rights of a student who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
During last year’s commencement ceremony, an assistant principal required the student to remove a graduation cap bedecked with traditional Cherokee beads and a sacred eagle feather, according to the lawsuit, which remains pending in 414th District Court.
The Midway ISD Board of Trustees approved a proposed settlement agreement in the case Oct. 15, but it is unclear if the student and his mother will accept the terms of the agreement.
Tacoda Goodall and Charity Goodall-Smith, his mother, filed the suit against the district in May under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act states that a governmental entity may not “substantially burden” someone’s free exercise of religion.
Neither of the two attorneys representing Goodall and Goodall-Smith returned messages this week. The district declined comment, citing pending litigation. Goodall-Smith declined comment for the same reason.
The Goodalls seek $100,000 or less in monetary relief. They also request a declaratory judgment that the school district violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by substantially burdening their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs and $10,000 in damages and attorney fees.
In September 2017 and in early 2018, the district agreed Goodall could wear his traditionally beaded cap and sacred eagle feather at his high school graduation ceremony, according to the original complaint filed by the Goodalls. Goodall-Smith had ceremonially gifted her son with the cap beaded to conform to his beliefs as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The eagle feather honored his achievement of graduating from high school and passage into adulthood.
But on graduation day, May 26, 2018, as Goodall prepared to walk in the opening processional, an assistant principal stopped him and refused to allow Goodall to participate in the graduation ceremony unless he wore an unadorned cap, according to the complaint. Fearing he would miss this “once-in-a-lifetime event,” Goodall abandoned his cultural and religious beliefs to walk across the stage and receive his diploma.
As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Goodall and his mother have participated in traditional and cultural practices of their Native American heritage for years, including Cherokee ceremonial stomp dances and visitations with Cherokee cultural advisers and a traditional medical practitioner, the lawsuit states.
The Cherokees consider eagle feathers to be sacred, as they have “a special connection with God as they roam the sky,” the lawsuit states. The Goodalls believe eagle feathers symbolize achievement, honesty, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom and freedom.
Anticipating her son’s graduation in May 2018, Goodall-Smith sought assistance from a Cherokee elder to obtain an eagle feather and beaded cap for Goodall, like many other Native Americans, according to the lawsuit. The process took months.
“In their Native American tradition, when an eagle feather is gifted, it is among the highest forms of recognition that may be bestowed upon a young person,” the lawsuit states. “When an eagle feather is worn, it is not merely a ‘decoration,’ but a sacred object.”
Nine months before graduation, Goodall-Smith contacted the high school principal to seek approval for her son to wear the beaded cap at graduation, according to the lawsuit. The principal informed Goodall-Smith via her assistant that the Goodalls would need a letter from the Cherokee Nation supporting their request.
On Sept. 22, 2017, the Cherokee Nation issued a letter to Midway ISD, supporting Goodall and explaining the religious significance of the beaded cap and eagle feather, the lawsuit states. A few days before graduation, Goodall-Smith contacted the assistant principal to confirm approval for her son to wear the cap.
“Although Charity did not speak directly with Assistant Principal Smith, she received a voicemail from his secretary, confirming that they ‘were good to go’ for Tacoda to adorn his cap with an eagle feather and beadwork,” the lawsuit states.
Three days after graduation, Goodall-Smith met with Principal Alison Smith, and during that meeting the principal admitted that neither she nor Assistant Principal Walter Smith had read the letter from the Cherokee Nation and she apologized for how the situation was handled, the suit states.