NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Saying that “we don’t need a law to tell us what language we are already speaking,” Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed a bill that would have required city agencies and officials to communicate in English “except when required by federal law or when necessary to protect or promote public health, safety or welfare.”
Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville, who stood with Purcell as he made the veto announcement Feb. 12, said the city is “noted for its friendliness and its willingness to welcome those who are new to the area.”
“The characteristics of kindness, for which this city has developed a national recognition, can also be called Christian charity,” the bishop said.
“This ordinance does not reflect who we are,” Mayor Purcell said, noting the long tradition of immigration in middle Tennessee.
A primary reason for the veto, he said, was that exceptions to the ordinance would be so broad that unnecessary lawsuits would surely arise, potentially costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Flanked by nearly a dozen civic leaders, including Bishop Choby, Mayor Purcell said, “If this ordinance becomes law, Nashville will be a less safe, less friendly and less successful city.
“We don’t need a law that will make it harder for a police officer to do his job, for a schoolteacher to teach or a doctor to help a patient,” the mayor said.
Bishop Choby agreed with Mayor Purcell’s reasoning for vetoing the bill, but noted that “political and economic considerations are not the starting point for the church. The more fundamental issue is the dignity of every human being as a child of God.”
The “English-first” bill, which has been fiercely debated in the city for the nearly six months, passed 23-14 at the Feb. 6 meeting of the Metro Council, the governing body of Nashville and surrounding Davidson County.
Councilman Eric Crafton, who initiated the bill, is seeking to override the mayor’s veto by getting four more council members to vote “yes” on it.
Failing that, he said he will introduce separate legislation to put the measure on the ballot as a proposed amendment to the Metro Charter.
While people on both sides of the “English-first” debate have been vocal about the bill, for the most part they agree it would have little practical impact. Rather, it is seen as a largely symbolic slap at illegal immigrants.
“At the heart of this ordinance is the issue of immigration,” Mayor Purcell said in his veto announcement. “We are dealing with that issue by supporting the deportation of illegal aliens who commit crimes.”
Beyond the issue of illegal immigration, the mayor said, the “English-first” bill would have “put at risk our community and its ability to welcome and work with those people who come to our city legally and want to be a part of our city.”
Nashville is home to the largest community of Iraqi Kurds in the United States; Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services helps hundreds of displaced people relocate in Nashville every year from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
But it is the Hispanic immigrant population that has boomed most in the last decade, and they felt most targeted by the “English-first” bill.
“We are certainly delighted with the veto,” said Jose Gonzalez, co-founder of Conexion Americas, a local nonprofit that promotes the integration of Hispanic families into the community.
Gonzalez, a parishioner at St. Henry Church in Nashville, said he was pleased to see so many prominent leaders from the faith, business, tourism and labor communities standing with Purcell as he announced the veto.