Are English Only rules legal?

In light of the large immigrant population in the United States and the prevalence of many different cultures and languages, many citizens have called for laws that require the use of the English language. Are these so-called “English Only” laws legal?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on national origin—where an employee was born or where his ancestors came from. Because an employee’s primary language is often a characteristic of his national origin, “English Only” rules can be the basis of a national origin discrimination claim.

Language Requirements

These rules—such as requiring employees to speak English in the workplace—often violate Title VII because they tend to have a disparate impact on a particular national origin group. For example, a rule requiring English in the workplace would adversely affect more Hispanic employees than Anglo-Saxon employees. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) presumes that all such “English Only” rules are discriminatory. According to the EEOC, prohibiting an employee from speaking his primary non-English language disadvantages that employee based on his national origin.

However, these rules are allowed if they are reasonably related to the job and they are a business necessity. For example, an “English Only” rule might be lawful where employees are required to speak directly to English-speaking customers or if the rule is necessary for safety in a dangerous work environment.

On the other hand, requiring an employee to only speak English in a safe work environment would be unlawful.

Fluency Requirements

A rule requiring employees to be fluent in English is much harder to prove as discriminatory than an “English Only” rule. These rules require employees to be able to adequately speak and read English and can be a pretext for national origin discrimination. However, if the rule is an essential job requirement it does not violate Title VII. Further, unlike “English Only” rules, there is no presumption that they are unlawful.

For example, a rule requiring that hospital employees be able to read and speak English in some fashion is not discriminatory. The difference between this rule and “English Only” rules is that, here, the employees are not prohibited from speaking other languages besides English.

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