Nashville may make English official

Voters to decide on mandatory use in government

By Juanita Cousins
Associated Press / January 22, 2009
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NASHVILLE - Nashville could become the largest US city to make English the mandatory language for all government business under a measure being put before voters today, but critics say it might invite lawsuits and even cost the city millions in federal funding.

Though similar measures have passed elsewhere, the idea has ignited an intense debate. Proponents say using one language would unite the city, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worry it could give the city a bad reputation, because, as Governor Phil Bredesen put it, "it's mean spirited."

The referendum's most vocal supporter, city Councilman Eric Crafton collected enough signatures to get the "English First" charter amendment on the ballot because he fears government won't run smoothly if his hometown mirrors New York City, where services are offered in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole.

Crafton has tried to eliminate the city's language translation services since 2006, but the mayor vetoed a similar measure in 2007.

"A community that speaks a common language is unified and efficient," said Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese and married to a native of Japan.

. While the measure requires that all government communication and publications be printed in English, it allows an exception for public health and safety.

If it passes, there will be uncertainty about what government services can be translated and what can't, said health department spokesman Brian Todd. For example, the public health exemption might allow health workers to use translation to tell an immigrant with tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease how to avoid contaminating others, he said.

The department currently provides brochures in several languages about health issues ranging from disease prevention to the side effects of immunizations.

It also uses translation services to help enforce dog leash laws and codes that prohibit lots with high grass and weeds.

Detractors have also said the English First policy may not survive a court challenge because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires agencies that receive federal dollars to provide free translation services.

Todd said the health department could lose about $25 million in federal funds if it stopped translation services.

The city's finance director, Richard Riebeling, said if it passes, he will urge departments to continue providing translation services so Nashville does not "risk millions of dollars in federal grants."

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