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Federal role questioned in Oklahoma's English-only debate

CHRIS CASTEEL, Washington Bureau Modified: July 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm •  Published: July 29, 2009
WASHINGTON — The Oklahoma congressional delegation wants U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to explain why the Justice Department got involved in a debate by the Oklahoma Legislature this year over making English the state’s official language.

The delegation sent a letter to Holder on Tuesday questioning why his Civil Rights division sent a letter to Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson in the midst of the English-only debate reminding him that state entities receiving federal funds have to observe certain laws regarding people with limited proficiency in English.

The letter, sent by all seven members of the delegation, asks Holder to explain his department’s "overreach” and explain further what funding might be in jeopardy if Oklahoma voters approve an English-only amendment next year.

The state Legislature approved a resolution in May that will allow state voters to declare that English is Oklahoma’s common and unifying language and that all official state actions must be conducted in English. It would bar lawsuits to have state services provided in languages other than English.

2010 election date
The question is expected to be voted on in 2010, possibly during the general election in November.

The acting director of the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department sent Edmondson a letter in April outlining the state’s obligations.

The state can’t discriminate based on English proficiency whether or not it passes an English-only amendment, the Justice Department letter says.

The Justice Department letter doesn’t explicitly warn that federal funds could be cut off, though it says entities that receive federal funds are obligated to comply with various civil rights statutes.