Legal Threats Force Town to Rescind English-Only Ordinance, Sponsor Says

The sponsor of an English-only ordinance in a small New York town is bracing for the measure to be overturned by his fellow council members Wednesday.

Councilman Roger Meyer said the threat of legal action by the state Attorney General, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, leaves Jackson Township little choice but to back off its determination to have the English-only law.

“I’m sure it will be voted down at the next meeting,” Meyer said, “because of the threats of the ACLU and the Attorney General.”

“We can’t afford a lawsuit, we’re just a very tiny town.”

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently ordered the town officials to overturn the ordinance, which bans public employes from speaking a language other than English in the course of their work and calls for all documents to be only in English.

Schneiderman said the ordinance is unconstitutional. He called the measure “illegal” and “discriminatory.”

Civil rights groups have watched with concern that Jackson’s ordinance could set a precedent and spark similar moves in other towns.

The town's focus on making English the official language struck many outside of it as intriguing – foreign languages have not been an issue there. Its foreign-born population is 2.4 percent of the total community of about 1,800 people, far below that of the state, which is 20.4 percent.

Meyer concedes that the measure is more of a pre-emptive strike against what he sees as the very likely presence sometime in the future of foreign-language speakers who would demand that government services be provided in their language.

“There might be a need in the future,” Meyer said, adding that language use in public services could become an issue “40 years from now.”

”I think it’s heading that way, people seem to be getting more separated,” he said.

More than 30 states have Official English measures -- some towns across the country also have them. But the measures are largely symbolic.

Earlier this year, Official English bills were introduced in Congress. Similar bills have been introduced in Congress in previous years, but have not passed.

Officials with New York Attorney General's office say Jackson is violating rights.

In a letter to Town Supervisor Alan Brown, Executive Deputy Attorney General Janet Sabel said: “The ordinance discriminates against non-English speaking persons in violation of federal and state constitutional and statutory law, and infringes on the free speech rights of public employees and all people living in, visiting, or working in the town.”

Sabel warned that if the ordinance is not overturned, the Attorney General’s office will consider “more formal steps to ensure that this unlawful ordinance is invalidated and rescinded.”

National groups that support official English laws have urged the public to contact Schneiderman’s office to object to the pressure on Jackson to drop the ordinance.

Pro-English, a group that advised Meyer on aspects of the ordinance, wrote on its website: “The Attorney General of New York is wrong that Jackson is discriminating against immigrants. The ordinance does nothing to inhibit Jackson’s residents from speaking any language they desire. It simply requires the local government to operate and communicate in English.”

Immigration advocates have accused the township of sending a hostile message to the foreign-born, a message that says they’re not welcome there.

Meyer says that never was his intention.

“It in no way prohibits any other language” in situations other than government business, he said. “I wish I could speak other languages. I took Latin, but never met anyone who could speak Latin.”

He says he’s been called a bigot by critics of the ordinance.

“I’ve been told I’m a Skinhead,” he said. “I’m the furthest thing from that. I’m almost 78 years old. I’m very patriotic. This country was founded on immigration. But I don’t believe in illegal immigration. I believe people should come here legally.”

Like many supporters of Official English laws, Meyer feels people don’t try as they once did to learn English.

“Our Founding Fathers didn’t put it in the Constitution, they took it for granted that it was our language,” he said.

Meyers said he made an attempt to amend the ordinance to include some things to allay “constitutional worries” such as exceptions to the English-only requirement in cases of emergencies, but it didn’t pass.

He said he had not thought of such details the first time around because “I didn’t know any better. You learn as you go.”

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino

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