South Dakota Senate kills English language amendment

By Terry Woster
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 2-09

A proposal to let voters decide if South Dakota’s constitution should declare English the state’s official language, died in the Senate.

Senators voted 20-14 on Feb. 12 to kill SJR2, which proposed a constitutional amendment making English the state’s official language. If the provision were in the constitution, no state or local government could adopt a law, ordinance or rule that required the use of any language but English.

Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, sponsored the proposal. He said having a common language is a large part of what has united the nation.

“I think we all realize America is a melting pot of diversity,” Rhoden said.

He said lawmakers wouldn’t be making a decision by passing his resolution, simply giving voters a chance to make that decision.

Sen. Ben Nesselhuf, D-Vermillion, said that changing the constitution as proposed would be unnecessary. State law already makes English the state’s common language, he said.

“This is beyond me that this is in front of me,” Nesselhuf said.

The amendment wouldn’t prevent anyone from speaking any language they wished, Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said. It would simply make sure they had the ability to communicate in English, he said.

The proposed amendment included a provision that said nothing could restrict the use of the Lakota, Dakota or Nakota language by American Indians.

That failed to impress Sen. Jim Bradford, R-Pine Ridge.

“By the way, that melting pot you’re talking about, you wouldn’t have a pot if it weren’t for the Native Americans,” Bradford said.

Rhoden said the way the amendment was worded, Native American languages would be protected and could be strengthened.

Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry, D-Watertown, said the amendment could affect a governing body’s ability to adopt a rule allowing sign language, or a court’s ability to adopt rules for foreign language for some defendants.

“Do you really know what you’re doing if you amend the constitution as you’ve been asked to do?” Turbak Berry asked.