Louisiana: School Board urged to avoid language, prayer rules

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jul 10 17:18:11 UTC 2008

School Board urged to avoid language, prayer rules

By Matthew Pleasant
Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 3:00 p.m.

English only proposal evokes strong emotion Officials consider
English-only graduation speeches

HOUMA -- The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the Terrebonne
Parish School Board not to create rules that require prayer or
regulate the languages spoken at high-school graduation ceremonies. A
state agency created to protect and foster French culture and language
has also voiced its opposition to such rules. Both groups oppose the
proposed rules on constitutional grounds and refer to Louisiana's
multi-cultural history as support.
On Tuesday, Marjorie Esman, Louisiana ACLU executive director, sent a
letter to School Board members in response to board member Rickie
Pitre's suggestion that graduation speeches should be spoken in

Pitre made the suggestion at a recent committee meeting that
commencement speakers stick to English. At that meeting, board members
were discussing their concerns about May graduation ceremonies for the
parish's public high schools. The board voted to create a committee to
study the graduation ceremonies and recommend changes, including
whether language rules should be created. The issue arose after
Vietnamese co-valedictorians, who are also cousins, spoke in their
native language at Ellender High School's graduation this spring.

Both say they were addressing family members in the audience who are
not fluent in English. The board also discussed why two schools'
ceremonies did not include invocations and benedictions and whether
board members could impose a rule requiring them. The ACLU, an
organization that advocates for individual rights, has fought six
court cases against the Tangipahoa School Board, most recently related
to a prayer given at a graduation ceremony.

Esman's letter cites several court rulings against mandated prayer at
graduations. It also states that students may initiate prayer, but a
faculty member cannot sanction it. "The law is clear and settled that,
in order to preserve the religious freedoms of all, schools may not
promote or sanction religious exercises at graduation," Esman writes.
She also defends the students' use of Vietnamese by citing an article
in the Constitution protecting a person's right to "preserve, foster
and promote" their "historic, linguistic and cultural origins."

Warren Perrin, president of the Council for the Development of French
in Louisiana, or CODOFIL, sent a letter to the board that strikes a
similar chord. In 1921, Louisiana adopted a language policy that made
public classrooms English-only, Perrin states. "As a result, Louisiana
experienced a Ă«linguistic genocide' which, in many cases, causes
Francophone citizens to feel shame even to this day," he writes.
Language needs to be carefully guarded, Perrin said, because it is
part of what makes the state unique. He added, "To protect Louisiana,
we need to protect all ethnic languages."

Pitre declined to comment Tuesday, but he has said he does not want to
discriminate against a certain group. He has qualified his opinion on
graduation speeches, saying he'd prefer students to speak in English
and, if necessary, briefly paraphrase their speech in their native
Board member Roger DeHart has also said he would prefer speeches in
English, but concedes it's out of his control.
"I can't work against freedom of speech," he said. Secondary Education
Supervisor David Bourg heads up the committee of educators who will
study graduations and eventually make recommendations to the board.
There's no set deadline on when those recommendations must be made.


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