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."