ACLU Asks School Board Not to Adopt Unconstitutional Policy on Prayer
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW ORLEANS – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sent a letter urging the Terrebonne Parish School Board not to enact a policy which would require school prayer at high school graduations, and require that only English be included in the ceremony. The issue arose after two Vietnamese students gave parts of their valedictory speeches in Vietnamese, to address their families, this past year.
“I’m troubled that educators aren’t more concerned with how to make all students and their families feel welcome, regardless of their religion or native language,” said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director. “Every student should feel proud of their accomplishments and included in the celebration on graduation day. In addition, if adopted this policy would blatantly violate the U.S. and Louisiana Constitutions.”
The ACLU letter was addressed to all 9 members of the School Board and laid out the organization’s concern that the policy would be unconstitutional.
On the issue of religion, the ACLU of Louisiana recently brought a similar case in Tangipahoa Parish, in which the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana agreed that the School Board violated students’ rights when a teacher gave a prayer at a graduation ceremony. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649, that school employees can not induce, endorse, assist, or promote prayer at graduation ceremonies.
On the issue of incorporating other languages besides English into school ceremonies, the state of Louisiana has given specific protection to the promotion of linguistic origins to recognize the heritage of this state. The ACLU is concerned that the new policy might foster an environment of ethnic and racial discrimination, and that it may violate the free speech rights of students.
“The law is clear that, in order to preserve the religious freedoms of all, schools can not promote religious exercises at graduations,” said Esman. “I’m sure the Terrebonne Parish School Board wants to do the right thing, and, as required by the Louisiana Constitution, honor the heritage of all their students. Terrebonne Parish, home to Cajun French speakers and Native Americans, has seen cultural discrimination for decades. No matter where we come from, we’re all Lousianians.”
Open Letter Concerning Terrebonne Parish Public Schools Graduation Policy
We have learned that the Terrebonne Parish School Board is considering the adoption of policies with respect to high school graduations, which might include policies mandating prayer and requiring the use of English only. This letter is to express our serious concerns with both of those policies and to urge you not to adopt any policy that will violate the U.S. Constitution, the Louisiana Constitution, or that will result in ethnic or racial profiling or discrimination.
With respect to prayer at graduations, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school employees may not induce, endorse, assist, or promote prayer at graduation ceremonies. Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which includes Louisiana in its jurisdiction, has ruled that any prayer at graduation must be nonproselytizing, non-sectarian, and both student-initiated and student-led. Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 977 F. 2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992). Under Clear Creek, it is permissible for a student to say a prayer in graduation ceremonies, only if the prayer occurs at the initiative of a student, and it must not be sanctioned by school administrators or teachers. However, even this has recently been called into question, by Does 1-7 v. Round Rock Indep. Sch. Dist., 2007 WL 5029247 (W.D.Tex). Additionally, very recently, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana agreed that the Tangipahoa Parish School Board violated the U.S. Constitution when a teacher gave a prayer at a graduation ceremony. John “P” v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board et al, 2:07-cv-03142-SRD-ALC (June 10, 2008 Minute Entry).
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 graduations. We assume that the Terrebonne Parish School Board does not intend to violate these well-established principles and that you will ensure that school officials do not impose prayers at graduations.
With respect to the English-only proposal, we understand that the issue arose after two students of Vietnamese ancestry gave parts of their valedictory speeches in Vietnamese, to address their families. Article 12, Section 4 of the Louisiana Constitution provides as follows:
The right of the people to preserve, foster, and promote their respective historic linguistic and cultural origins is recognized. The State of Louisiana has given specific protection to the promotion of linguistic origins, in part because of the linguistic heritage of this state. Any policy that would prohibit the recognition and promotion of linguistic heritage would violate the Louisiana Constitution.
In addition, we are concerned that a proposed “English only” policy might violate the United States Constitution. First, we are concerned that it violates the free speech rights of students who give graduation speeches. Second, it appears be the result of ethnic or racial discrimination. Terrebonne Parish, with its heritage of Cajun French speakers and of Native Americans, has seen cultural and linguistic discrimination for decades. To address this issue now, in response to a few words in Vietnamese spoken by class valedictorians, appears to be directed against those Vietnamese students and their families, in violation of the principles of equal protection.
For all of these reasons, we urge you not to adopt any policies that would promote graduation prayers or that would interfere with the expression of linguistic and cultural heritage of the students of Terrebonne Parish.
Marjorie R. Esman
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