OKLAHOMA CITY —
International students and non-English speakers soon could see a drop in bilingual services offered by Oklahoma’s government following the move to make English the state’s official language.
“When all these services are suddenly not available, I think it will come as a bit of a shock to (non-English) speakers,” said Tony Terry, director of The Language Company’s Shawnee location, which offers English-as-a-second-language classes. “And abroad, people who hear about this might see Oklahoma as a backward place that is not interested in the general international community.”
Seventy-five percent of voters approved of State Question 751, which makes Oklahoma the 31st state to declare English its official language. But before any changes can be made, the new policy will need to survive a legal challenge and receive an assist from the Legislature to implement any reforms.
Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, co-wrote the bill that created the state question. He acknowledged the state question does little except for the symbolic gesture on its own.
Faught said lawmakers would be tasked next year to pass the accompanying enforcement and implementation language. This likely will mirror a bill Faught wrote but failed to pass during the last session.
The unsuccessful Oklahoma Official English Language Implementation Act of 2010 would have banned laws or polices that “requires or permits the use of a language other than English, or both English and another language, for an official action.” It also requires any agency or official to specify any associated costs if it uses a non-English language for any purpose.
Both the language in the state question and the failed 2010 bill include many exemptions for when other languages can be used.
The state question specifically states “Native American languages could also be used” and other languages are permitted in a host of other exceptions including public safety and when federal law trumps state policies.
Faught said the state could expect to save a significant amount of money by eliminating additional forms, translators or extra services for times when other languages are not required. He said the cost savings should be known after the Legislature studies the issue during the upcoming session, when he anticipates the bill easily would pass.
“I can’t see being on the floor debating against it when 75 percent of voters said they wanted this,” he said. “So now it’s time to do our job and implement what the vast majority of voters want us to do.”
Even before lawmakers decide how to carry out the state question, it might have to withstand a court battle.
James C. Thomas, a Tulsa attorney and professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, announced this week he plans to challenge the constitutionality of the state question in district court. Thomas argues it a violation of the right of free speech.
“This is a matter of more than just principal,” Thomas said. “What this says is that tourists should not come to Oklahoma because they might not be able to get the services they need. This is different than just assimilating others into our society as citizens. Oklahoma can’t shut its doors to other countries.”
Thomas said he expects to file the lawsuit in the next week or two.
Brown is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.