Elections

Should states and localities have official languages?

Voters in one Pennsylvania county will decide whether to remove English as the official language in a city charter.

Voters in one Pennsylvania county will decide whether to remove English as the official language in a city charter. Janine Robinson | Unsplash

By Kate Elizabeth Queram 

Voters in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania will decide next month whether to keep English as the official language of Allentown, where more than half of residents identify as Hispanic.

English has been “the official language of the city of Allentown and the language in which city business shall be conducted” since 1996, when voters approved the adoption of a home rule charter.

But the measure isn’t enforced. It mandates the use of English only where doing so is legally permissible—which is prohibited in all workplaces, public and private, under federal law. City business in Allentown is often conducted in other languages (even the city’s website is available in Spanish at the click of a drop-down menu). 

But it’s confusing for some residents, who have worried that the provision could allow employers to retaliate against non-English speaking employees or prevent the city from providing services to minorities, said Julio Guridy, president of the Allentown City Council.

“What we’re trying to do is say that we shouldn’t have a government that speaks English only,” he said. “It should be that we can speak other languages as well. I want it to be inclusive.”

Allentown’s language provision was enacted amid a resurgence of the national English-only movement, a largely political effort to enshrine English as the official language across the United States. Support for the movement has ebbed and flowed over time, gaining a significant following in the 1990s and again after 9/11More than 30 states have designated English as their official language, despite research that indicates that type of provision usually stems from racism.

English became official in Allentown in 1994, two years after then-Councilwoman Emma Tropiano introduced a resolution and also asked that city services only be provided in English. The impetus for her crusade, Guridy said, was a sign from the state Department of Transportation warning residents of a sidewalk closure near a local bridge.

“There was a sign in English,” he said, “and also one in Spanish. And she didn’t think that was a good use of city funds.”

The provision was added to the city’s original charter in 1996, part of a blanket ballot initiative that asked voters only to approve or reject the document as a whole. Subsequent changes to the charter must be approved by voters, so in April, Guridy drafted a proposal for a referendum on the matter. In May, the council voted unanimously to place the measure on the ballot for the municipal general election Nov. 2. If voters approve, the language provision will be stricken from the charter.

But Guridy is unsure how likely that is. The referendum is worded oddly, with no mention of language at all; instead, it asks voters, “Shall paragraph B of Section 101 of the City of Allentown Home Rule Charter be removed from the Charter?’’ 

“The way the question is on the ballot is pretty bad,” he said. “It doesn’t tell you the reasons, it just names the code. Then you have to go into the legislation itself to find out what the article is.”

Ballots have been mailed to early and absentee voters, so the wording must stay. Because of that, Guridy said, it’s likely that some voters who may support the change will vote it down or skip it altogether. If the charter stands as is, Guridy said he may pursue different language for a second referendum that focuses less on the removal of English specifically.

“English is the language of business and the one we speak in America primarily,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give the opportunity for other languages to be introduced.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty, where this story first appeared. 

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