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Birmingham News - Delay Vote Effectively Kills English-Only Bills in State Senate

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Location: Montgomery, AL

Opponents delayed and likely killed two proposals Thursday that aimed to require the use of English in driver license exams and other state business, saying the ideas were as divisive as former Gov. George Wallace's 1963 stand in the schoolhouse door.

"They just reek division," said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile. "They just smell bad. They're awful." She said the bills would hurt residents who don't speak fluent English.

Figures likened the bills' sponsor, Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, to Wallace and his segregation-era effort to stop blacks from attending the University of Alabama.

"I think about you standing in the door ... just the way Governor Wallace did so many years ago," she said. "We need to be doing things and working together in bringing people together, rather than these emotional issues all the time that just pull people apart."

Beason replied that requiring more official use of English would bind citizens together and avoid division.

"It's good for the people of Alabama to use English as the official language in a unifying factor so that we can all get along," he said. "I see down the road us getting to the place where we end up with two or three groups of people who speak different languages and have a difficult time working with each other.

"I'm trying to avoid that situation."

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee voted 5-4 to delay action on the proposed laws. Beason said voting to delay the bills this late in the legislative session in effect killed them.

What bills covered:

Senate Bill 446 would require the exclusive use of English in official state actions, meetings, programs or publications unless other federal or state laws or regulations specifically required use of other languages.

Senate Bill 447 would require that the driver's license exams in Alabama be given only in English. Beason said he was willing to change the bill to let someone to take the exam in his or her native language and then require the person a year or two later to retake the exam in English.

Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, likened support for the bills to reactions that led many decades ago to segregationist Jim Crow laws, and to actions sparked by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that said segregated public schools were unconstitutional.

"We saw Jim Crow laws, which was a reaction by elected officials. We saw reactions by the Alabama Legislature and other officials after Brown v. Board of Education, where we resisted efforts to integrate our schools," Little said.

Then Little mentioned Nazi Germany. "I'm not making any comparisons, I'm just pointing out, in Nazi Germany, they felt like the Aryan race was superior.

"What I'm saying is, let's resist the temptation to react to a very emotional and heated issue," Little said. He called on lawmakers to "be deliberate," and asked fellow committee members to delay action on the bills.

Denies racist intent:

Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, said she feared the bill furthering use of English in official state actions would deter residents who speak broken English from seeking state benefits or other help.

"This is discriminating against people who are American citizens," she said.

After the committee's vote, Beason said in an interview: "To think that English-only is some sort of racism, it's just inexcusable."

Voting to delay the bills were Sens. Coleman; Figures; Little; Larry Means, D-Attalla; and Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne.

Voting not to delay the bills were Sens. Beason; Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals; Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery; and Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills.

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