Md. bill to make English the state's language assailed

March 23, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- An attempt to make English the official language of Maryland, a perennial loser in the General Assembly, is getting serious consideration for the first time.

An array of ethnic and human rights groups yesterday attacked the proposal, which would make Maryland the 20th state to adopt some form of "official English" legislation.

Representatives of Latino, Asian, Native American and even deaf Marylanders who use American Sign Language led a news conference to brand House Bill 982 and its companion, Senate Bill 467, as discriminatory.

The chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Del. John D. Jefferies, a Baltimore Democrat who had co-sponsored the legislation, reversed and declared the caucus against it.

Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission, said she feared a rise in hate crimes and discrimination complaints should the bill become law.

A spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the governor was "leaning against it."

"It's meant to be a unifying issue, but in some respects it can be divisive," said Joseph L. Harrison Jr., the spokesman. Opponents fear that the measure, which received strong approval from House and Senate committees, could be used to curb bilingual education, limit the use of interpreters in government proceedings and eliminate foreign-language literature that helps immigrants use government services.

The bill's unexpected appeal comes as polls show anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise nationwide and as Maryland's foreign-born population increased by 60 percent in the last decade.

The legislation would make English "the language of government functions and actions" at the state, county and local levels.

But it would allow government to use other languages in some cases: to comply with federal law; to protect public health and safety; to protect crime victims and defendants' rights; to educate students who don't speak English well; to teach foreign languages; and to promote the arts, tourism and international commerce.

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