English Only Amendment
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English Only Amendment

Date: October 8, 2008
By: Valerie Insinna
State Capitol Bureau
Links: The full text of Constitutional Amendment 1 and the bill description with roll-call votes.

JEFFERSON CITY - Constitutional Amendment 1 on Missouri's November ballot would make English the official language of government proceedings, but would leave translation services unchanged. 

Opponents of the amendment contend that the amendment is unnecessary and sends the message that Missouri does not welcome immigrants.  Proponents say the amendment will not harm any immigrant group and will protect constituents by keeping government understandable to its citizens.

Under the language of the amendment, a government proceeding includes any meeting, conference call, video conference, Internet chat, or message board where public business is discussed.

Rep. Brian Nieves, R-Union and the legislative sponsor of the amendment, said the measure does not target the immigrant community and that he embraces legal immigration.

"This is a completely, absolutely benign amendment," he said. "It does absolutely nothing unless they have the intention of conducting official government business in a language other than English."

Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the amendment is a pre-emptive measure that will keep government transparent.

"If we were to conduct our committee meeting in, let's say German, that would not be conducive to open government that the population can properly understand and make good judgments as to how we're serving them," Nolte said. "I would say that the target is to make sure we have open government that is readily understood by the population and then they can keep their eye on it. "

However, one of the state's leading organizations for immigrant rights -- Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates -- has announced its opposition to the proposal.

"We feel it would limit people to participate in our communities," said the MIRA executive director, Jennifer Rafanan. "Why amend our Constitution to make it less welcoming?"

The coalition argue that the amendment has no practical use because there is no danger of government meetings in Missouri being carried out in a language other than English.

Rafanan said most immigrants want to learn English, but not enough adult-English language courses exist to satisfy the demand. 

Tony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in eastern Missouri, said the ACLU opposes this amendment because its vague definition of government proceeding could cause First Amendment violations.

"If people start interpreting meeting to mean any meeting between a public official or constituent or court proceedings or administrative hearings or email messages sent by public officials, if they start interpreting it broadly then that's when it starts to really affect people and when it would run afoul of the First Amendment," Rothert said.

Rafanan said since the bill was originally drafted, the definition of a government proceeding has narrowed and hopes it will be enough to prevent discrimination.

"I think the amendment is drawn in a narrow fashion that hopefully it won't keep people from partitioning government," she said.

Rothert said the amendment preys on public fears of illegal immigrants and is bad public policy.

"The message of this amendment for immigrants is that Missouri is not a place where you're welcome," he said.

Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, who opposed the amendment, said the amendment is a good election issue, but that it doesn't address any issues Missourians are actually facing.

"The majority of people are going to say 'Hey listen, my neighbor or I am in danger of losing our house! My company is downsizing! I can't send my child to the college I want because tuition has gotten too expensive!'" he said. "Why are we talking about English-only when in reality it's not going to do anything but be a negative?"

On the other side, Nieves said immigrant-rights organizations are raising worries about the amendment that are unjustified and that the amendment has no connection with the English-only movement or immigration.

"They believe if they can keep racial tensions high, they can justify their existence," he said. "They lied to the immigrant community to use them as pawns."

Rafanan said Nieves' statements were baffling because MIRA is not promoting an active campaign against the amendment.

"We aren't drumming up racial tension," she said. "There are people across the board who oppose this amendment."

Candidate Positions on the English-Only Requirement of Constitutional Amendment 1

Candidates for Governor

Candidates for Lieutenant Governor

Candidates for Secretary of State

Candidates for State Treasurer

Candidates for Attorney General