Colorado lawmakers pass bill allowing for regalia of cultural and religious significance at graduation

Tom Hesse/CPR News
Ana Villasano, right, places a sash sporting the flags of the United States and Mexico, on her daughter, Naomi Peña Villasano, during Saturday’s graduation at Grand Valley High School.

Colorado students will be ensured the right to wear objects of “cultural or religious significance” during graduation under a bill headed to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 24-1323 was introduced following a 2023 controversy originating at Grand Valley High School in Parachute. Last April, high school senior Naomi Peña Villasano was told by school administrators that she couldn’t wear a sash that featured the flags of both the United States and Mexico.

What followed was weeks of back-and-forth with school officials, leading to legal challenges questioning the district’s policies around graduation regalia.

Villasano ended up wearing the sash when she crossed the stage, without official permission from the district. But the situation left untouched the larger question of what limits schools can put on graduation outfits, leading lawmakers to step in.

In addition to ensuring students are allowed to wear objects of cultural or religious significance, the bill limits the restrictions schools and universities can put on what students wear underneath their graduation robes. Officials may prohibit students from wearing something if it is “likely to cause substantial disruption of, or material interference with, a graduation ceremony,” however, the bill stipulates the “prohibition must be the least restrictive means necessary to accomplish a specifically identified important government interest.”

Villasano, whose graduation sparked the debate over appropriate attire, has stuck with the issue all the way from Garfield 16 School Board meetings through to the legislature. She said she’s pleased to see it finally at the finish line. 

“I had some moments where I did feel discouraged, but working with the whole team in the steering committee, it was such an honor to even be part of this all and to watch it from beginning to now,” Villasano said. “It is amazing and there's just a lot of emotions behind it getting this far, and so I’m pretty excited. I'm really grateful for everything that everyone has put all the work into and just everything overall for it to even have gotten this far.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The sash that Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña was told she could not wear at her graduation ceremony, worn while she's recognized by Colorado's House of Representatives. May 5, 2023.

The bill was sponsored by Villasano’s local representative, Elizabeth Velasco, as well as Rep. Tim Hernández and Sen. Rhonda Fields, all Democrats. It passed through the legislature on party-line votes, with all Republicans opposed.

During the senate vote on the bill, Republican Sen. Mark Baisley said the policy had “great heart” but that locally-elected school boards should be the ones to decide what’s appropriate for their graduation ceremonies, not state lawmakers. “I don’t believe that it’s right for us to usurp their authority from the state.”

The bill still awaits Governor Jared Polis’ signature. Upon signing, schools and universities are required to adopt policies that align with its requirements.