A hearing was expected to continue into the evening on whether Geno's Steaks owner Joey Vento discriminated against non-English speaking patrons by posting an "Speak English" sign at his South Philadelphia shop.
The Rev. James Allen, the chairperson of Commision on Human Relations, was the first witness to testify late this afternoon, followed by University of Pennsylvania professor Camille Charles.
Charles, a professor of sociology, said the number of foreign-born residents living in the South Philadelphia neighborhood near Geno's grew more than 200 percent between 1980 and 2000.
When shown historical signs from the Jim Crow era in the South that read "Whites Only," Charles said Vento's "Speak English" sign had the same impact on patrons.
More witnesses were expected to be called before the commision today and Rev. Allen, the chairman, vowed the hearing will not end until everyone has been heard.
Today's hearing is the result complaints in June 2006 about a sign Vento put in his steak-shop window saying, "This is America, when ordering, please 'speak English.' "
The notice soon generated national media attention, prompting a recent visit by Rudy Giuliani.
Before the testimony began today Vento's attorneys argued about the fairness of the hearing itself.
The attorneys for Vento charged that the proceedings were unfair for two reasons and asked that the case be thrown out. First, the attorneys said, the allegations were brought by the Rev. James S. Allen Sr., chairperson of Commission on Human Relations, the city agency adjudicating the case.
Second, the defense first learned of several commission witnesses, set to testify today, less than an hour before the hearing began at about 1:30 p.m. at the Quaker meeting house near Third and Arch Streets.
Defense attorneys, however, were required to submit their pretrial briefs and witness lists well in advance.
After Vento's attorneys asked for the case to be dismissed "without prejudice," the panel of commissioners recessed to consider their next step and then returned to continue the hearing.
More than 100 people attended, watching the proceedings in the unadorned 1804 structure, with its wooden floors and wooden pews.
Statements by either side were met with muttering or grumbling by the spectators.
Outside, one man held a "Hail Geno" sign bearing an American flag. A group wore black T-shirts with a message that Pennsylvania loves immigrants, the word loves symbolized by a heart.
Making most of the arguments for Vento's team was Shannon Goessling of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, based in Atlanta.
Leading the prosecution was commission counsel Paul M. Hummer, a partner in the law firm Saul Ewing.
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations decided to charge that Vento discriminated against non-English speakers.
The commission alleges that Vento's sign violates the section of the city's Fair Practices Ordinance that prohibits the owner of a public accommodation from putting up a sign aimed at "any specific group" to make its members feel discriminated against or unwelcome.
Below the Geno's sign was another that stated, "Management reserves the right to refuse service."