Samuel Billison hasn’t written his speech yet. But when he addresses the crowd today at a Capitol rally to oppose Rep. Tammy Rowan’s English-only bill, he will tell them how another language helped America through one of its darkest times.
Billison was a Navajo code-talker during World War II, one of the hundreds of Navajos who joined the Marines and created an intricate code for critical military communications in the South Pacific.
He will travel to Salt Lake City from his home in Window Rock, Ariz., to urge citizens and lawmakers to turn back Rowan’s bill.
“The Navajo language code was one of the tremendous contributions made helping to end the war,” Billison said. “I always say it is good the Holy People gave us that language. It is the language that has done the work. This is part of freedom of speech, to be able to speak our language, to learn and speak other languages. That is why we fought.”
Billison is one of 25 scheduled speakers representing more than 35 community groups expected at the Utah Common Voices human-rights rally, which will begin with a march.
“This really is a general human-rights rally. But English-only is the most pressing issue facing the Legislature right now,” said organizer Cori Sutherland, education director for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There has been a huge group of people involved. That has been really exciting. That is the upside of this kind of legislation - it does unify people.”
Rowan’s bill, HB189, would prohibit state agencies from conducting government business or printing information in any language but English. There are exceptions: Schools would still be allowed to teach foreign language and English-as-a-second-language courses; court interpreters, law-enforcement and emergency personnel would be allowed to use other languages if the need arose; and other-language tourism and economic-development programs still would be allowed.
Rowan says her bill would help remove language barriers in Utah and increase people’s ability to earn money by securing better jobs. Her bill was endorsed in August by the legislative Government Operations Interim Committee.
Meantime, opposition to the bill has grown, with dozens of community organizations going on record as opposing the measure.
Ogden and Salt Lake City have passed “English-plus” resolutions that encourage proficiency in English, but not at the expense of other languages and cultures.
The Salt Lake City-County Health Department has condemned the bill, despite a clause that would exempt it from English-only restrictions. Board of Health members said they feared the law would discourage people from seeking needed care; and department Director Thomas Schlencker said the bill would increase the climate of racism in Utah.
The rally’s organizers include JEDI Women, the ACLU, the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission, Coalition of Religious Communities, The Decency Principles, Utah Coalition of La Raza, The National Conference of Christians and Jews, Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services, AFL-CIO, Crossroads Urban Center, the Utah Welfare Reform Coalition, the Community Action Program and many others.
“It is important to get everyone together to show how many communities would feel the impact of this law if it were passed,” Sutherland said.
Rowan said she would not attend the public rally. “If they wanted me there, they could invite me to give the other side,” she said. “I have a feeling they don’t want to hear it.”
Sutherland said that the rally will be backed up by a strong lobbying effort in the Legislature, which convenes its annual session Monday.