This is America, speak Spanish
By Michael M. Bates
I find it annoying to call a telephone number and have to press 1 to proceed in English. It seems to me that our national language should routinely be used and callers wishing an alternative should be the ones to select a number.
We've come very far from the sentiment of Teddy Roosevelt, who believed, "We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language." That's not politically correct by today's standards and the U.S. government explicitly disdains such views. A model of current official thinking is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's tormenting of the Salvation Army for setting up an English-only policy for its workers.
In Massachusetts, the Salvation Army gave all employees one year in which to learn English and speak it while on the job. Two people who sorted clothes for the agency refused and were terminated.
Enter the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Deciding that the Salvation Army's action had embarrassed, humiliated, inconvenienced and inflicted emotional pain on the fired employees, last April the EEOC sued the Christian organization for back pay, damages and an end its "discriminatory rules."
The EEOC asserts that an employer can impose an English-only rule solely when it's necessary for conducting business. According to the agency, otherwise mandating that employees speak English on the job constitutes national origin discrimination.
Spanish, which was spoken by the former clothes sorters, is in this instance a language, not a national origin. That detail hasn't slowed down the EEOC in its godly mission.
Requiring workers in the U.S. to speak English isn't discriminatory. It's common sense. We have a common language and English is it. Being able to communicate with the boss, with one's co-workers, with customers, and with the police and other emergency workers isn't an unreasonable expectation for most employees.
The EEOC's suit didn't escape the attention of Congress. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is obviously frustrated by the some 200 legal actions taken by the EEOC against English-only guidelines from employers. So he proposed legislation that would loosen the rules that have been used to keep businesses from adopting such requirements. On the Senate floor, Mr. Alexander explained his purpose:
"The amendment I offered in the Senate Appropriations Committee is an amendment to make clear that it is not against the Federal law for an employer to require an employee to speak English on the job. Let me say that again. My amendment, which was adopted by this Senate, was to make it clear that it is not against the Federal law for an employer to require an employee to speak English on the job. . .
"I offered the amendment because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a Federal agency, has determined that it is illegal for an employer in this country to require employees to speak in English while working. . . this means that thousands of small businesses across America - the shoe shop, the drugstore, the gas station - any company would have to be prepared to make their case to the Federal agency - and perhaps hire a lawyer - to show there is some special reason to justify requiring their employees to speak our country's common language on the job. I believe this is a gross distortion of the Civil Rights Act, and it is a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be an American."
Senator Alexander's provision passed the relevant committee. It passed the full Senate. In the House, bill conference members were instructed to agree to the measure and make it law.
Then Madame Speaker caved. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), pressured by Hispanic Democrats in the House, is holding up the entire commerce, justice and science appropriation bill so the amendment won't pass. Ms. Pelosi will never be mistaken for a profile in courage.
Our common language is a basis of our cultural unity. It's far from the only language spoken in the United States, but certainly it's the primary one. For folks wishing to advance here, knowledge of it is essential. We do immigrants no favors by bending over backwards trying to accommodate them in their native language, hindering their adapting to a new culture.
It's heartening to see Senator Alexander recognize these realities. Sadly, not everyone in Washington does.
Congress is already held in widespread contempt, and often justifiably so. Speaker Pelosi's latest craven act isn't going to help.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the December 6, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.