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Oklahoma's English-only amendment clears a hurdle: Changes to the proposal appear to have cleared up concerns that it would jeopardize federal funds.

Friday, July 31, 2009

WASHINGTON — Changes made to a proposed English-only constitutional amendment that's now headed to Oklahoma voters appear to resolve the concerns of a federal agency that had warned that it put federal funds in jeopardy.

"The proposal appropriately allows languages other than English when required by federal law, and, as long as recipients comply with those laws, federal funds are not at risk," U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Wednesday. "The issue we advised as creating potential confusion is no longer in the proposal."

Miyar said state lawmakers approved a different version about a week after the Justice Department sent a letter in April to Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

The letter advised that adoption of an earlier version of the amendment could conflict with Oklahoma's obligation to protect the civil rights of people with limited English proficiency.

It also reminded Edmondson that recipients of federal funds must comply with civil rights laws.

That letter was provided several weeks ago to the Oklahoma congressional delegation, and on Tuesday the delegation wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and challenged his agency's right to threaten state funds pre-emptively.

In its letter, the delegation also asked Holder to identify which funds would be at risk, what prompted the letter to Edmondson, and whether other states with official English policies have received similar letters.

In response to questions from the Tulsa
World, Miyar said the Department of Justice has a vigorous program of compliance to ensure that jurisdictions are aware of the requirements of the civil rights act.

However, Miyar said, the Oklahoma proposal was the only one the agency had noticed that cited a specific executive order.

That is why it was important to clarify to Oklahoma that Title VI, not the executive order, is the federal law that asserts the requirement for recipients of federal funds to provide reasonable access to people with limited English proficiency, Miyar said.

Asked whether other states had lost federal funds after adopting such laws, Miyar could not provide examples related to limited English proficiency but added that the Justice Department has found violations in many state facilities, such as courts and corrections departments.

"Terminating funds is the last option," Miyar said. "We work with the entities to obtain voluntary compliance."

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who led the delegation's effort to challenge the Justice Department, said he is pleased that the agency has called off its threat over the amendment.

"While the practical application of the state amendment is no different from what the Justice Department initially objected to, they have rightfully back-peddled from their threat to pull federal funding," Inhofe said.

"It was inappropriate in the first place for this federal agency to meddle in the affairs of our state."

Inhofe said he looks forward to the Department of Justice's response to the state delegation, adding that several questions contained in its letter remain unanswered.

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