Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) November 18, 2007

“Speaking With One Voice”

Posted on November 18, 2007

I am sorry to report that I am being prevented from putting forward an amendment in Congress to make it clear that it is not against federal law for an employer to require an employee to speak English on the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency, says it is illegal for an employer to require employees to speak in English. It has sued the Salvation Army for damages because the army requires employees at a thrift store in Boston to speak English on the job. The EEOC says this is discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unless the Salvation Army can prove a business necessity -- which, in plain English, means that thousands of small businesses in America would have to hire a lawyer and be prepared to make their case to a federal agency that there is some special reason to justify speaking English on the job. I believe this is a gross distortion of the Civil Rights Act and a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be an American. That’s why I’ve put forward this amendment to stop the EEOC from filing these lawsuits. The Senate Appropriations Committee agrees – it voted on June 28th to approve my amendment. So does the full United States Senate, which voted on October 16th to pass the bill with my amendment. So does the full House of Representatives, which voted to instruct its conferees to agree with the Senate on this matter on November 8th. So the Senate-House appropriations conference which is considering this amendment should adopt it and make certain that federal law is clear. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, California, has shut down negotiations because she wants my amendment stripped from the bill. America's greatest accomplishment is that we have turned our magnificent diversity into one country. It is virtually impossible to become Japanese, Chinese, or even German or French, but if you want to become a citizen of the United States, you must become an American. Becoming American cannot be based upon race or where your grandparents were born or your native language or religion. It is based upon swearing allegiance to our country. It is based upon learning American history so that one can know the principles in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It is based upon learning our common language, English, so we can speak to one another, live together more easily and do business with one another. We have spent the last forty years in the United States celebrating diversity at the expense of unity. That is easy. We need to spend the next years working hard to build unity from our magnificent diversity. That is hard. One way to create that unity is to value, not devalue, our common language, English. The original motto of our country is inscribed on the wall in the U.S. Senate. It is E Pluribus Unum -- one from many. It is not many from one. Not long ago, the film maker Ken Burns was commenting on his new epic film about World War II. It was during that time he said, that America had more unity than at any other in its history. What we have done with that unity, that pulling together, has been the fundamental accomplishment of our country since World War II, building the greatest universities, the strongest economy, and the country with the most opportunity. Quoting the late Arthur Schlesinger in his 1990s book, The Disuniting of America, Ken Burns said recently that perhaps what we need in America today is a little less pluribus and a little more unum. I believe he is right. And one way to make sure we have a little more unum, a little more of the kind of national unity that is our country's greatest accomplishment, is to make certain that we value our common language – and that we not devalue it by allowing a federal agency to say that it is a violation of federal law for an employer to require an employee to speak English on the job.