More Than The Mountain Laurel: PA House Holds Hearing For English Language Bill

Sep 21, 2015

House Bill 1506 would ensure that all government documents in the state are in English.

Supporters and opponents of House Bill 1506, which would make English the official state language in Pennsylvania, testified Monday at a House Committee hearing.

Under the legislation, introduced by Rep. Ryan Warner (R-Fayette), all state government documents would be required to be in English.

Warner said the bill would save money by eliminating the cost of hiring interpreters and translators to re-write legislation or other government documents in other languages.

“We cannot go to the citizens of Pennsylvania and ask them for more money without turning over every stone, and without looking at every option for reducing the cost of state government,” he said.

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the bill could “make a bad situation worse” because residents with limited English proficiency are already underserved by schools and other government organizations.

“We are concerned at the ACLU that this type of legislation conflicts with some basic American values: fairness, free speech, equal protection, and that there is the potential for a message that is one of hostility toward residents of Pennsylvania who do not speak English,” Hoover said.

Robert Vandervoort, executive director of ProEnglish, said legislation declaring English the official state language could still be welcoming to non-English speaking immigrants.

“Official English laws help encourage assimilation among immigrants, which is the most welcoming thing we can do,” Vandervoort said. “I know a lot of critics like to say that this is an unwelcoming piece of legislation. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. It tells people that when you come here, you learn English (and) you become part of our society.”

Jan Ting, Temple University law professor, also testified in favor of the bill. He said its passage would limit courtroom defense strategies that encourage arguing a non-English-speaking client couldn't read the existing law.

“Making English official does not preclude government from offering services in other languages if it chooses to do so,” Ting said. “It does not outlaw the use of other languages, but it should limit taxpayer obligation to provide translation services to those areas.”

Rep. Pamela DeLissio (D-Montgomery) said she originally thought the bill was designating English as the official language, much like the Mountain Laurel is the official state flower, but this bill goes too far.

“If we’re trying to send a message, that’s one thing," she said. "We’ve already established that we don’t know that this is saving any material money, so we could just simply say, like the flower, the language is English and let it go at that.”