Pennsylvania has a state bird, the ruffled grouse. It has a state flower, the mountain laurel. Now, legislators in Harrisburg are hoping to add a state language, a move some say is slightly more weighty.
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and more than 30 other House members are pushing to make English the official language of the commonwealth.
"It's a way of identifying with the country," Benninghoff said. "We know it is not the only language in the commonwealth, but we think it should be considered the official language."
That isn't to say citizens would be barred from speaking other languages -- Benninghoff says his legislation would simply link English to the commonwealth's identity, akin to the state beverage, bird and fossil.
But the Jan. 26 bill has alarmed those who fear an official language would discourage diversity, including Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Hoover pointed to Hazleton, Pa., which made English its official language in 2006. The move caused tension in the community, Hoover said, which was 19 percent Hispanic in 2007.
"We oppose making English the official language of Pennsylvania," Hoover said. "What the mayor did in Hazleton caused a serious division in his town."
ProEnglish, an advocacy group for making English the official language at local, state and federal levels, supports Pennsylvania passing such legislation, communications director Raegan Baker said.
"English unifies the country," she said, adding 30 states already have similar legislation in place.
Countries without an official language are struggling, Baker said. Just look at Belgium: The country of two languages, Flemish and French, is splitting along cultural lines, and that's something ProEnglish doesn't want to happen in the United States, Baker said. Benninghoff was sure to address critics of the bill who worry making English the official language of the country -- or even the commonwealth -- could harm the diversity America was founded on and still treasures.
"This should not be perceived as a negative or infringement on someone who speaks another language," he said.
Supporters of the bill recognize the commonwealth hosts both bilingual and multilingual citizens, he said, and making English the official language of the state is not a prohibition on all other languages. Still, the division in Hazleton -- which hosts a Penn State branch campus -- worries Hoover, who fears a similar splintering of the state if the bill is passed.