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English Only

31 December 1998 Published in Legislative Work

The Utah State House of Representatives Votes to Oppose the English-Only Initiative; Sponsor Vows to Bring it to the Ballot in the Year 2000  

On January 21, the Utah State House of Representatives voted to oppose the controversial initiative, English as the Official Language of Utah (see how your legislator voted). In a bipartisan show of opposition, representatives voted 43-31 to oppose the initiative filed by Representative Tammy Rowan (R-Orem), which states that except in limited circumstances, "the English language is the sole language of the government" (view the proposed initiative)

The initiative is almost identical to Rowan’s 1998 "English-only" legislation, which died in committee and never made it to the House floor for a vote (see our 1998 Legislative Report for additional details). This year, Rowan used paid petitioners from the national company, National Voter Outreach, and collected the number of signatures necessary to ensure that the entire House of Representatives will vote on her initiative. Importantly, the legislature will not be able to amend or modify the initiative in any way – they can only enact or reject it. Rowan has promised that if the initiative fails in the legislature, she will continue collecting signatures so that she can place it on the ballot in the year 2000. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah opposed the proposed initiative, which, if passed next year by voters, will be the most restrictive official English law in the country. We are very concerned that such a law will severely compromise the due process, equal protection, and First Amendment rights of those who are not yet proficient in English, and limit effective communication between government employees and the public. 

In discussing the proposed initiative, it is important to state accurately what it will and will not accomplish. If passed, this initiative will prevent state and local governments from providing services in languages other than English. It even goes so far as to prohibit entities that are merely regulated by state or local governments from issuing non-English publications. The law’s effects would be so widespread, that no one – not even the sponsor – knows what its real impact will be on existing services and programs. 

Supporters of the initiative base their arguments on the mistaken belief that such a restrictive law is necessary in order for the state to avoid liability. They erroneously maintain that by providing services in some languages, but not in all of those spoken by Utahns, the state opens itself up to lawsuits on behalf of those language minorities who are not served. 

However, there is simply no case law that holds that the failure to extend assistance to all language minorities, where the government has chosen to serve some, violates the constitution. The Voter Rights Act, for example, states that ballots will be printed in a language other than English if the population speaking that language represents at least 5% or 10,000 of the voting age population within a particular voting district. No one has ever suggested that the act’s failure to provide language assistance to language minority groups who do not meet these numerical thresholds violates their constitutional rights. Indeed, setting these sorts of limits is a reasonable way to provide services. 

The failure to provide services, however, has led to costly lawsuits against other states and their subdivisions. For example, in 1991, the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles did away with its longtime practice of administering driver’s license exams in several languages, and chose to conduct exams in English only. This year, Martha Sandoval successfully challenged the Alabama DMV in court, and a federal judge ruled that their practice did indeed violate the federal Civil Rights Act. Alabama is currently facing a similar lawsuit against a county tax assessor, who refused to grant non-English speakers tax exemptions to which they were legally entitled. Utah’s proposed initiative does not account for either one of these situations, and it is unknown just how many lawsuits our state will face as a consequence of a poorly drafted law. 

Utah’s proposed initiative may face an even broader legal challenge. A recent Arizona Supreme Court decision calls into question the constitutionality of laws that prohibit government employees and officials from using languages other than English. Ruling that the state’s English-only amendment is unconstitutional, the court found that the amendment would deprive people with little or no English from accessing information about government "when multilingual access may be available and may be necessary to ensure fair and effective delivery of governmental services to non-English-speaking persons." Utah’s initiative is similar to the Arizona amendment, and if passed, it will be interesting to see how it is impacted by the Arizona decision. 

Legal liability is important in the debate on English-only, but there are other significant issues that must be considered as well. The proposed official English initiative forces us to ask ourselves what sort of a community we want to create. Representative Rowan claims that this initiative will facilitate communication and increase economic opportunities for Utahns who are not yet proficient in English. Those are excellent goals, and ones that the ACLU of Utah endorses wholeheartedly. However, we maintain that there are alternative ways to accomplish these goals that do not pose potential legal problems and, more importantly, divisiveness within our communities. 

Read more about the ACLU’s position on English-only >>

Senator Pete Suazo (D-Salt Lake) proposed an English Plus Resolution. Similar to the English Plus Resolutions passed by both the Ogden and Salt Lake City Councils last year, the resolution celebrates Utah’s diverse linguistic communities, and opposes English-only measures such as Rowan’s proposed initiative. Importantly, Suazo’s resolution gives lawmakers and citizens an alternative to the incredibly restrictive official English initiative. 

Review Senator Suazo’s English Plus Resolution >> 

Voting Record  

Voting for the Initiative "English as the Official Language of the State of Utah" 

Gerry Adair, R-Roy 
Jeff Alexander, R-Provo 
Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley 
DeMar Bowman, R-Cedar City 
Katherine Bryson, R-Orem 
Don Bush, R-Clearfield 
Craig Buttars, R-Lewiston 
David Cox, R-Lehi 
Margaret Dayton, R-Orem 
Marda Dillree, R-Farmington 
Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan 
Thomas Hatch, R-Panguitch 
Bradley Johnson, R-Aurora 
Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo 
Joseph Murray, R-Ogden 
Lowell Nelson, R-Highland 
Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward 
Tammy Rowan, R-Orem 
Jack Seitz, R-Vernal 
Marlon Snow, R-Orem 
Marty Stephens, R-Farr West 
Nora Stephens, R-Sunset 
Michael Styler, R-Delta 
John Swallow, R-Sandy 
Jordan Tanner, R-Provo 
Matt Throckmorton, R-Springville. 
A. Lamont Tyler, R-Holladay 
David Ure, R-Kamas 
Richard Walsh, R-Cottonwood Heights 
Glenn Way, R-Spanish Fork 
Bill Wright, R-Elberta  

Voting Against the Initiative "English as the Official Language of the State of Utah" 

Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful 
Eli Anderson, D-Tremonton 
Patrice Arent, D-Holladay-Cottonwood Heights 
Loretta Baca, D-Salt Lake 
Trisha Beck, D-Sandy 
Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake 
Chad Bennion, R-Murray 
Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake 
Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake 
Afton Bradshaw, D-Salt Lake 
Melvin Brown, R-Midvale 
Perry Buckner, D-West Jordan 
Judy Ann Buffmire, D-Millcreek 
Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake 
Blake Chard, R-Layton 
Gary Cox, D-Kearns 
Greg Curtis, R-Sandy 
Carl Duckworth, D-Magna 
Ben Ferry, R-Corinne 
Fred Fife, D-Salt Lake 
Kevin Garn, R-Layton 
David Gladwell, R-Ogden 
Brent Goodfellow, R-West Valley 
James Gowans, D-Tooele 
Neil Hansen, D-Ogden 
Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan 
Neal Hendrickson, D-West Valley 
John William Hickman, R-St. George 
David Hogue, R-Riverton 
Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville 
Bryan Holladay, R-West Jordan 
Keele Johnson, R-Blanding 
David Jones, D-Salt Lake 
Brad King D-Price 
Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross 
Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake 
Loraine Pace, R-Logan 
Carl Saunders, R-Ogden 
Raymond Short, R-Holladay 
Lawanna Shurtliff, D-Ogden 
Richard Siddoway, R-Bountiful 
Gordon Snow, R-Roosevelt 
David Zolman, R-Taylorsville  

Absent or Not Voting 

Dennis Iverson, R-Washington 

Initiative A: English as the Official Language of Utah  


This act affects sections of Utah Code Annotated 1953 as follows: 


63-13-1.5. Utah Code Annotated 1953 
Section 1. Section 63-13-1.5 is enacted to read:  

63-13-1.5. Official state language. 

(1) English is declared to be the official language of Utah. 

(2) As the official language of this State, the English language is the sole language of the government, except as otherwise provided in this section. 

(3) Except as provided in Subsection (4), all official documents, transactions, proceedings, meetings, or publications issued, conducted, or regulated by, on behalf of, or representing the state and its political subdivisions shall be in English. 

(4) Languages other than English may be used when required: 

(a) by the United States Constitution, the Utah State Constitution, federal law, or federal regulation; 

(b) by law enforcement or public health and safety needs; 

(c) by public and higher education systems according to rules made by the State Board of Education and the State Board of Regents to comply with Subsection (5); 

(d) in judicial proceedings, when necessary to insure that justice is served; 

(e) to promote and encourage tourism and economic development, including the hosting of international events such as the Olympics; and 

(f) by libraries to: 

(i) collect and promote foreign language materials; and 

(ii) provide foreign language services and activities. 

(5) The State Board of Education and the State Board of Regents shall make rules governing the use of foreign languages in the public and higher education systems that promote the following principles: 

(a) non-English speaking children and adults should become able to read, write, and understand English as quickly as possible; 

(b) foreign language instruction should be encouraged; 

(c) formal and informal programs in English as a Second Language should be initiated, continued, and expanded; and 

(d) public schools should establish communication with non-English speaking parents of children within their systems, using a means designed to maximize understanding when necessary, while encouraging those parents who do not speak English to become more proficient in English. 

(6) Unless exempted by Subsection (4), all state funds appropriated or designated for the printing or translation of materials or the provision of services or information in a language other than English shall be returned to the General Fund. 

(a) Each state agency that has state funds appropriated or designated for the printing or translation of materials or the provision of services or information in a language other than English shall: 

(i) notify the Division of Finance that those monies exist and the amount of those monies; and 

(ii) return those monies to the Division of Finance. 

(b) The Division of Finance shall account for those monies and inform the Legislature of the existence and amount of those monies at the beginning of the Legislature’s annual general session. 

(c) The Legislature may appropriate any monies received under this section to the State School Board for use in English as a Second Language programs. 

(7) Nothing in this section affects the ability of government employees, private businesses, non-profit organizations, or private individuals to exercise their rights under: 

(a) the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; and 

(b) Utah Constitution, Article 1, Sections 1 and 15. 

(8) If any provision of this section, or the application of any such provision to any person or circumstance, is held invalid, the remainder of this act shall be given effect without the invalid provision or application. 

More on the American Civil Liberties Union’s Position on English-Only Laws  

From its inception, the United States has been a multilingual nation. At the time of the nation’s founding, it was commonplace to hear as many as 20 languages spoken in daily life, including Dutch, French, German and numerous Native American languages. Even the Articles of Confederation were printed in German, as well as English. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the nation’s linguistic diversity grew as successive waves of Europeans immigrated to these shores and U.S. territory expanded to include Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines. 

Just as languages other than English have always been a part of our history and culture, debate over establishing a national language dates back to the country’s beginnings. John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress in 1780 that an official academy be created to “purify, develop, and dictate usage of,” English. His proposal was rejected as undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty. 

Nonetheless, restrictive language laws have been enacted periodically since the late 19th century, usually in response to new waves of immigration. These laws, in practice if not in intent, have punished immigrants for their foreignness and violated their rights. 

In the early 1980s, again during a period of concern about new immigration, a movement arose that seeks the establishment of English as the nation’s official language. The “English-only” movement promotes the enactment of legislation that restricts or prohibits the use of languages other than English by government agencies and, in some cases, by private businesses. The movement has met with some success, English-only laws having been passed in several states. And, for the first time in the nation’s history, an English Language Amendment to the Constitution has been proposed. 

The ACLU opposes English-only laws because they can abridge the rights of individuals who are not proficient in English, and because they perpetuate false stereotypes of immigrants and non-English speakers. We believe, further, that such laws are contrary to the spirit of tolerance and diversity embodied in our Constitution. An English Language Amendment to the Constitution would transform that document from being a charter of liberties and individual freedom into a charter of restrictions that limits, rather than protects, individual rights. 

Here are the ACLU’s answers to some questions frequently posed by the public about English-only issues. 

Q: What is an English-only law? 

A: English-only laws vary. Some state statutes simply declare English as the “official” language of the state. Other state and local edicts limit or bar government’s provision of non-English language assistance and services. For example, some restrict bilingual education programs, prohibit multilingual ballots, or forbid non-English government services in general – including such services as courtroom translation or multilingual emergency police lines.  

Q: What are the consequences of English-only laws?  

A: Some versions of the proposed English Language Amendment would void almost all state and federal laws that require the government to provide services in languages other than English. The services affected would include: health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers’ licensing exams, and AIDS-prevention education.  

Passage of an English-only ordinance by Florida’s Dade County in 1980, barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the public transit system to medical services at the county hospital. 

Where basic human needs are met by bilingual or multilingual services, the consequences of their elimination could be dire. For example, the Washington Times reported in 1987 that a 911 emergency dispatcher was able to save the life of a Salvadoran woman’s baby son, who had stopped breathing, by coaching the mother in Spanish over the telephone to administer mouth-to-mouth and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until the paramedics arrived. 

Q: Do English-only laws affect only government services and programs?  

A: English-only laws apply primarily to government programs. However, such laws can also affect private businesses. For example, several Southern California cities have passed ordinances that forbid or restrict the use of foreign languages on private business signs.  

Q: Some English-only advocates have opposed a telephone company’s use of multilingual Q: Who is affected by English-only laws?  

A: English-only campaigns target primarily Latinos and Asians, who make up the majority of recent immigrants. Most language minority residents are Spanish-speaking, a result of the sharp rise in immigration from Latin America during the mid-1960s.  

While the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents – 96 percent – are fluent, approximately ten million residents are not fluent in English, according to the most recent census. 

Q: How do English-only laws deprive people of their rights?  

A: The ACLU believes that English-only laws are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For example, laws that have the effect of eliminating courtroom translation severely jeopardize the ability of people on trial to follow and comprehend the proceedings. English-only laws interfere with the right to vote by banning bilingual ballots, or with a child’s right to education by restricting bilingual instruction. Such laws also interfere with the right of workers to be free of discrimination in workplaces where employers have imposed “speak English only” rules. 

In 1987, the ACLU adopted a national policy opposing English-only laws or laws that would “characterize English as the official language in the United States...to the extent that [they] would mandate or encourage the erosion” of the rights of language minority persons. 

Q: What kinds of language policies were adopted with regard to past generations of immigrants?  

A: Our nation was tolerant of linguistic diversity up until the late 1800s, when an influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans, as well as Asians, aroused nativist sentiments and prompted the enactment of restrictive language laws. A 1911 Federal Immigration Commission report falsely argued that the “old” Scandinavian and German immigrants had assimilated quickly, while the “new” Italian and Eastern European immigrants were inferior to their predecessors, less willing to learn English, and more prone to political subversion.  

In order to “Americanize” the immigrants and exclude people thought to be of the lower classes and undesirable, English literacy requirements were established for public employment, naturalization, immigration and suffrage. The New York State Constitution was amended to disfranchise over one million Yiddish-speaking citizens. The California Constitution was similarly amended to disfranchise Chinese, who were seen as a threat to the “purity of the ballot box.” 

Ironically, during the same period, the government sought to “Americanize” Native American Indian children by taking them from their families and forcing them to attend English-language boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their indigenous languages. 

The intense anti-German sentiment that accompanied the outbreak of World War I prompted several states, where bilingual schools had been commonplace, to enact extreme language laws. For example, Nebraska passed a law in 1919 prohibiting the use of any other language than English through the eighth grade. The Supreme Court subsequently declared the law an unconstitutional violation of due process. 

Today, as in the past, English-only laws in the U.S. are founded on false stereotypes of immigrant groups. Such laws do not simply disparage the immigrants’ native languages but assault the rights of the people who speak the languages. 

Q: Why are bilingual ballots needed since citizenship is required to vote, English literacy is required for citizenship, and political campaigns are largely conducted in English?  

A: Naturalization for U. S. citizenship does not require English literacy for people over 50, and/or who have been in the U. S. for 20 years or more. Thus, there are many elderly immigrant citizens whose ability to read English is limited, and who cannot exercise their right to vote without bilingual ballots and other voter materials. Moreover, bilingual campaign materials and ballots foster a better informed electorate by increasing the information available to people who lack English proficiency. 

Q: Doesn’t bilingual education slow immigrant children’s learning of English, in contrast to the “sink or swim” method that was used in the past?  

A: The primary purpose of bilingual programs in elementary and secondary schools, which use both English and a child’s native language to teach all subjects, is to develop proficiency in English and, thus, facilitate the child’s transition to all-English instruction. Although debate about this approach continues, the latest studies show that bilingual education definitely enhances a child’s ability to acquire the second language. Some studies even show that the more extensive the native language instruction, the better students perform all around, and that the bilingual method engenders a positive self-image and self-respect by validating the child’s native language and culture. 

The “sink or swim” experience of past immigrants left more of them underwater than not. In 1911, the U. S. Immigration Service found that 77 percent of Italian, 60 percent of Russian, and 51 percent of German immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind in school compared to 28 percent of American-born white children. Moreover, those immigrants who did manage to “swim” unaided in the past, when agricultural and factory jobs were plentiful, might not do so well in today’s “high-tech” economy, with its more rigorous educational requirements. 

Q: But won’t English-only laws speed up the assimilation of today’s immigrants into our society and prevent their isolation?  

A: In fact, contrary to what English-only advocates assume, the vast majority of today’s Asian and Latino immigrants are acquiring English proficiency and assimilating as fast as did earlier generations of Italian, Russian and German immigrants. For example, research studies show that over 95 percent of first generation Mexican Americans are English proficient, and that more than 50 percent of second generation Mexican Americans have lost their native tongue entirely.  

In addition, census data reveal that nearly 90 percent of Latinos five years old or older speak English in their households. And 98 percent of Latinos surveyed said they felt it is “essential” that their children learn to read and write English “perfectly.” Unfortunately, not enough educational resources are available for immigrants – over 40,000 are on the waiting list for over-enrolled adult English classes in Los Angeles. English-only laws do not increase resources to meet these needs.  

The best insurance against social isolation of those who immigrate to our nation is acceptance – and celebration – of the differences that exist within our ethnically diverse citizenry. The bond that unites our nation is not linguistic or ethnic homogeneity but a shared commitment to democracy, liberty, and equality.

English Plus Resolution 


Sponsor: Senate Pete Suazo 
1999 General Session  

WHEREAS English is the unifying language of the United States, and all members of the society recognize the importance of the English language to national prosperity and individual accomplishment; and  

WHEREAS the people of Utah promote the spirit of diversity with harmony represented by the various cultures that make up the fabric of our state and American society; and 

WHEREAS the people of Utah acknowledge that "English Plus" best serves the national interest since it promotes the concept that all members of our society have full access to opportunities to effectively learn English plus develop proficiency in a second or multiple languages; and 

WHEREAS according to the 1990 U.S. Census, 94 percent of U.S. citizens speak English; and 

WHEREAS multilingualism has historically been an essential element of national security, including the use of Navajo in the development of coded communications during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War; and 

WHEREAS multilingualism promotes greater cross-cultural understanding and benefit between different racial and ethnic groups; and 

WHEREAS Salt Lake City and the citizens of Utah will "Welcome the World" for the 2002 Winter Olympics; and  

WHEREAS Utah was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1845 wherein the United States insured protection of former Mexican citizens, made United States residents by the treaty, and protected their linguistic rights to continue to speak Spanish; and 

WHEREAS many Utah residents are multilingual due to their participation in the worldwide missionary work of the LDS Church whose members, among others, founded this State; and 

 WHEREAS the State Board of Regents and the (9) Institutions of Higher Education require a minimum of four years of study in a foreign language as a condition of admission for entering Freshman as acknowledgment that individuals who have the capability to communicate in multiple languages have access to a wealth of opportunities economically, socially, professionally, and personally. 

Now, therefore, let it be resolved that the State of Utah hereby reaffirms its advocacy of the teaching of other languages in the United States and its belief that the position of English is not threatened. Proficiency on the part of our citizens in more than one language is to the economic and cultural benefit of our state and the nation, whether that proficiency derives from second language maintenance plus English acquisition by speakers of other languages. Proficiency in English plus other languages should be encouraged throughout the State.

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