Loyalty oath costs teacher her job

California pacifist objected to pledge to defend constitutions

May 07, 2008|By Richard C. Paddock

When Wendy Gonaver was offered a job teaching American studies at California State University, Fullerton this academic year, she was pleased to be headed back to the classroom to talk about one of her favorite themes: protecting constitutional freedoms.

But the day before class was scheduled to begin, her appointment as a lecturer abruptly ended over just the kind of issue that might have figured in her course. She lost the job because she did not sign a loyalty oath swearing to "defend" the U.S. and California constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

As a Quaker from Pennsylvania and a lifelong pacifist, Gonaver objected to the California oath as an infringement of her rights of free speech and religious freedom. She offered to sign the pledge if she could attach a brief statement expressing her views, a practice allowed by other state institutions. But Cal State Fullerton rejected her statement and insisted that she sign the oath if she wanted the job.

"I wanted it on record that I am a pacifist," said Gonaver, 38. "I was really upset. I didn't expect to be fired. I was so shocked that I had to do this."

California State University officials say they were simply following the law and did not discriminate against Gonaver because all employees are required to sign the oath. Clara Potes-Fellow, a California State University spokeswoman, said the university does not permit employees to submit personal statements with the oath.

"The position of the university is that her entire added material was against the law," Potes-Fellow said.

The loyalty oath was added to the state Constitution by voters in 1952 to root out Communists in public jobs. Now, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main effect is to weed out religious believers, particularly Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses.

In February, another California State University system instructor, Quaker math teacher Marianne Kearney-Brown, was fired because she inserted the word "nonviolently" when she signed the oath. She was quickly rehired after her case attracted media attention.

It is hard to know how many would-be workers decline to sign the pledge over religious or political issues. Some object because they interpret the pledge as a commitment to take up arms. Others have trouble swearing an oath to anything other than their God.

Public agencies do not appear to keep a record of people denied employment over the oath. Union grievances and lawsuits are rare.

Some agencies take the oath more seriously than others. Certain school districts and community colleges have been known to let employees change the wording of the oath when they sign or to ignore the requirement altogether. Others, including the University of California, advise employees on how they can register their objections yet still sign the pledge.

All state, city, county, public school, community college and public university employees - about 2.3 million people - are covered by the law, although non-citizens are not required to sign.

The University of California, Berkeley was the first to impose a tough anti-Communist loyalty oath in 1949. It fired 31 professors who refused to sign.

After a version of the oath was added to the state Constitution, courts eventually struck down its harshest elements but let stand the requirement of defending the constitutions. In one court test, personal statements accompanying the oath were deemed constitutional as long as they did not nullify the meaning of the oath.

Now, the University of California advises new employees who balk at signing the pledge that they can submit an addendum, as long as it does not negate the oath.

The University of California even provides sample declarations, such as these: "This is not a promise to take up arms in contravention of my religious beliefs," and "I owe allegiance to Jehovah."

The California State University system takes a firmer approach.

The 23-campus California State University system has fired instructors over the oath at least twice before.

Efforts to remove the oath from the state Constitution have been unsuccessful, although the matter came under scrutiny in 1998 when a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on religious freedom.

Gonaver she would like to see the oath eliminated for all public employees except those who deal with sensitive information. She would also like an apology and a job next year.

"It makes no sense that they do this to people," she said. "It's people who take it seriously who don't get hired."

Richard C. Paddock writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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