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State Senate approves bill banning language discrimination

April 16, 2009 |  1:04 pm

Alarmed that a professional golf association proposed to exclude competitors who don’t speak English, the state Senate acted today to prohibit businesses in California from discriminating against customers, including refusing them service, based on the language they use.

The Ladies Professional Golf Assn. last year backed down from a policy that would have suspended golfers who do not speak adequate English on the premise that language fluency in speeches and media interviews was critical to the sport's promotion efforts.

The golfers were considered "patrons" of the LPGA, not employees.

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) said the policy raised an issue that required changes to state civil rights laws that already protect employees from discrimination based on language.

"I don’t understand the connection between speaking English and playing golf," Yee said on the Senate floor. "This is really about protecting our ability to speak the language that we wish."

Yee recalled as a young boy going to a San Francisco hardware store with an uncle who was mistreated because of his lack of proficiency in English.

SB 242, which now goes to the Assembly, was approved on a 21-15 vote, with Republican lawmakers opposed based on concern it would open businesses up to a rash of civil rights lawsuits if customers felt they did not get good service.

Yee noted the bill protects English speakers as well from being discriminated against by non-English-speaking business owners. The bill includes an exemption that says firms can require a specific language to be spoken if it is justified by a "business necessity," such as clear communications for safety, and that notification is provided as to when and where the language restriction is to be observed.

The bill drew concerns from U.S. English, a group that promotes English-only policies. Rob Toonkel, a spokesman for the group, said it makes good sense for businesses to treat customers well.

"Where we have concern is putting language on par with unchangeable characteristics," Toonkel said. "You can’t change your gender. You can’t change your disability. You can change the language you speak. You can learn to say, 'I’d like a hamburger.' "

-- Patrick McGreevy