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Bishops Oppose English-Only Measure

Times Religion Writer

Declaring it would “enshrine prejudice in the law,” California’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday announced their opposition to Proposition 63, the proposal on the November ballot that would establish English as the official language of California.

Although the proposed state constitutional amendment “appears at first glance to be innocuous,” the statement by the bishops’ California Catholic Conference said, “closer scrutiny reveals very negative implications.”

The statement claimed that Proposition 63 “would open the way for endless and costly lawsuits against bilingual programs and services,” including some state-financed Catholic social services, and “would cause disharmony between ethnic groups.”

The 20 California bishops and archbishops, whose dioceses include 5.9 million Catholics, about one-fifth of the state’s population, earlier issued a statement opposing Proposition 64, the state initiative designed to restrict activities of persons infected with AIDS. The bishops are not expected to take a collective position on other state propositions, a spokesman said.

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‘All Steps Necessary’

Proposition 63 says that the Legislature “shall take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of the State of California is preserved and enhanced,” and shall “make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English.”

The bishops said the English-language proposition “jeopardizes all forms of bilingual assistance, including emergency services, hospital translators, counseling, court interpreters and other services that guarantee public safety.”

However, Stanley Diamond, chairman of the California English Campaign, the group backing Proposition 63, interviewed by telephone, said: “We’d be ever so grateful if (the bishops) would read the amendment and the ballot arguments. If so, I’m sure they would retract their statement.” Rather than creating disharmony, he said, “Proposition 63 unites our people as a common English language has done for 200 years.”

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Diamond said proponents of Proposition 63 “are the strongest supporters of bilingual education; what we want are bilingual education programs that bring immigrant children into an English-speaking setting as quickly as possible.”

Some Exceptions

The ballot argument for the proposal encourages use of English “except where public health, safety and justice require the use of other languages.” Diamond said courts must take into consideration the ballot arguments as limitations on the exercise of the law.

Nevertheless, Father William J. Wood, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said in an interview that he feels that the proposition, if passed, would still be open to wide interpretation. “It might also be misunderstood by some agencies to mean that they were no longer able to make bilingual people available for emergency services,” he said.

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Wood, who is based in Sacramento, said he wrote the bishops’ statement and based it partly on similar statements previously circulated by the diocesan directors of services to the Latino communities and by Catholic Charities officials in California.

Echoing the California Catholic Conference statement argument that immigrants usually want to learn English but face long waiting lists for classes, Auxiliary Bishop Juan Arzube of Los Angeles, in an interview, added: “Their economic condition is so poor that they have to have two jobs. When are they going to learn English? We need more funding for English language programs.”


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