The highly charged dispute over the speak-English sign at Geno's Steaks is about to heat up.

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations this week notified Geno's owner Joey Vento that it has found probable cause that his sign urging patrons to order in English is discriminatory. The next step is to schedule a hearing to settle the dispute or to escalate the charges against the owner of the South Philadelphia sandwich stand.

Vento, who argues that the sign expresses opinions protected by the First Amendment, has enlisted the support of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm in Atlanta that last year won a settlement for an Ohio bar owner who faced similar charges.

"I'm shocked the city is pursuing this," said Albert G. Weiss, Vento's attorney in Philadelphia. "You'd think they have more important things to deal with."

National news coverage last summer of the controversy brought an outpouring of support for Vento. Weiss said Vento will refuse to remove the sign in his Ninth Street shop that features an American flag and an eagle with the statement: "This is America. When ordering, please speak English."

Vento says he has never actually denied service to any patrons who were unable to communicate in English, and so he can't be prosecuted for discrimination.

The human rights commission apparently is alleging Vento violated a 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 them feel discriminated against or unwelcome.

"A lot hinges on perception," said W. Nick Taliaferro, Executive Director of the commission.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation last year championed a similar cause in Mason, Ohio, where barowner Tom Ullum was cited by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission for posting a sign that stated: "For Service, Speak English."

The Ohio case went to a hearing in the state capital before the commission dismissed the charges when the complainant dropped her objections, said Todd G. Young, a spokesman for the legal foundation.

Ullum, 65, the barowner, said in a telephone interview that the case was settled only when he agreed to remove the sign and replaced it with a less objectionable one that did not make it appear that service would be denied to non-English speakers. The new sign reads: "Here We Speak English"

"I finally got fed up with it and signed the damn thing," Ullum said of the settlement.

"It's just a bunch of political stuff," said the barowner, who said he frequently posts signs expressing his conservative political opinions. "We're just a local blue-collar bar, that's all."

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.