National Catholic Register


Language Ban a Contentious Issue in Kansas



September 7-13, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/2/08 at 12:55 PM


WICHITA, Kan. — Presidential candidate Barack Obama was criticized recently for telling parents in Powder Springs, Ga., “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English … you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

But the advice might have helped ameliorate a recent diocesan school controversy that erupted into a federal case.

Parents of three Hispanic middle school students at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Wichita, Kan., sued the school and the Diocese of Wichita because the principal banned the use of Spanish on campus. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Marten sided with the school in an Aug. 15 decision, saying that the school policy did not violate any civil rights laws. A diocesan spokesman explained the school’s position.

“Problems at the school arose in the fall of 2007 when the students, whose first or primary language is English, began speaking in Spanish to make derogatory comments about teachers, school administrators and fellow students, and to separate themselves from other students,” Fred Solis said.

Congregation of St. Joseph Sister Margaret Nugent, the principal, ruled that English must be spoken at school at all times. St. Anne’s student population is one-third Hispanic.

Disciplinary Issue

Bilingual education was curtailed in California by 1998’s Proposition 227, and in Arizona and Massachusetts subsequently, but the Wichita case did not hinge on those laws, according to the school. It was a disciplinary issue.

Father Thomas Leland, pastor of St. Anne, said that school unity is essential for the education and spiritual formation of the school’s students.

“The unifying element in this case was the English language, because it’s the common denominator among the students, teachers and administration,” Father Leland said.

Sister Margaret referred all questions on the case to the diocese, but she did say that the 2008-09 academic year started well. She did not say if enrollment was affected.

Reporter Ron Sylvester, who covers the courts for The Wichita Eagle newspaper, said that the case proved to be “quite contentious” and generated enormous interest in the community at large.

“People found it to be a very emotional issue,” Sylvester said.

The same could be said for the concept of bilingual education in general. Many think that teaching in two languages is divisive and impedes foreign language speakers from assimilating into American society. Professor Jill Kemper Mora of the School of Education at San Diego State University is not one of them. Mora, winner of an excellence award for research from the California Association for Bilingual Education, said that teaching in a student’s first language is not divisive in a nation like America.

“Bilingualism is a natural phenomenon in a multicultural society,” she said. “It is actually a learning advantage and is important to bicultural affirmation and identity.”

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where 70% of its 4.5 million Catholics are Latino, a language controversy similar to the one just adjudicated in Kansas has never occurred, according to the archdiocesan spokesman.

“In my 17 years with the archdiocese, we have not had such a problem, and we celebrate Mass in 42 different languages,” said Tod Tamberg. “English is the language of instruction in all our [Catholic] schools, but we find it important to be flexible and accepting with regard to other languages.”

Tamberg said that the Wichita school’s reaction to the Spanish comments by some students sounded like “overkill” to him, and Mora of San Diego State agreed.

Father Leland did not agree with that assessment, although he did admit that the decision and the lawsuit it precipitated were not good for St. Anne’s.

“This issue has been divisive and hurtful to our parish community, and in that regard, there are no winners,” the pastor said.

Courts have also been divided in the past decade on English-only laws. The Alaska Supreme Court decreed in 2002 that a popular law requiring the use of English when conducting public business violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a 2000 case against a St. Louis factory that required English at work.

But in March 2008, a federal court ruled that Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia had a right to request the use of English when ordering. And this past May, an Iowa district judge ruled that voting ballots must be in English — and no other language.

A definitive decision about English-only education may be closer, although the Wichita case seems to hold that administrators are able to demand that English be spoken at all times at private schools. A case before the Arizona Supreme Court, Ruiz v. Symington, may spark a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that could finally clear the air about bilingual education.

Paul Barra resides in

Reidville, South Carolina.