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Court OKs driver exam in several languages

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A sharply divided Alabama Supreme Court turned back a group Friday that sought to end Alabama's practice of giving the driver license exam in several foreign languages.

Attorneys for the ProEnglish organization had argued that giving the exam in multiple languages violated a constitutional amendment that designates English as Alabama's official language.

Governor backed

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said the ProEnglish group presented no evidence that administering the test in multiple languages diminishes English as Alabama's common language. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in favor of Gov. Bob Riley and other state officials.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb cited the governor's argument that permitting people with limited English proficiency to take the written portion of the exam in their native language helped them get a license, and the license fostered their assimilation into the community by increasing their access to education, employment and shopping.

Four justices — Glenn Murdock, Lyn Stuart, Mike Bolin and Tom Parker — said the case should have gone in favor of the plaintiffs.

In Bolin's dissent, he said the majority was misinterpreting the constitutional amendment.

"The immigrants who came to Alabama by way of Ellis Island in the early 20th century did not have the benefit of a tortured construction of Amendment No. 509 and evidently 'assimilated' the wrong way — they actually learned the English language," Bolin wrote.

1990 amendment

In 1990, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that says: "English is the official language of the state of Alabama."

The constitutional amendment also says the Legislature "shall enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation," and the Legislature "shall make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language of the state of Alabama."

After the constitutional amendment was enacted, the Department of Public Safety, upon the advice of then-Attorney General Jimmy Evans, went from giving the driver exam in 14 languages to just one in 1991.

Then in 1998, after being sued by a Spanish-speaking resident, the department returned to having the exam in multiple languages.

That prompted the suit by members of ProEnglish, who were represented by the Southeastern Legal Foundation in Atlanta. Foundation Executive Director Shannon Goessling said the 5-4 decision showed the court "was clearly battling serious issues of first impression."

Possible appeal

She said the organization will consider its appeal possibilities, but the Legislature could settle the matter by voting in its upcoming session to use only English for the exam.

The state Department of Public Safety currently offers the driver's exam in Arabic, English, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese and American sign language.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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