I come from a part of the world where the taking of an oath has a rather unpleasant history.
I grew up in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia in Canada. I lived literally a block from the spot where, in 1755, the British commander told a group of Acadian farmers — who had grown estranged from France during their almost 150 years in the area and had no interest in the latest British-French blowup — that they would have to swear allegiance to the King of England or else their lands would be forfeited to the crown and they would be shipped away.
And as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chronicled in his poem, Evangeline, this is exactly what happened when the proud Acadians refused to take the oath.
For most people, taking an oath is not a problem. But for some their personal convictions — particularly their personal religious convictions — can create a troubling situation. Take the case of Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker and graduate student who was fired from her teaching job at California State University East Bay this week because she refused to sign an 87-word Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution that the state requires of elected officials and public employees.
It wasn't so much that she didn't want to swear allegiance to the state's Constitution. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, "A veteran public school math teacher who specializes in helping struggling students, Kearney-Brown, 50, had signed the oath before - but had modified it each time."
Each time, when asked to "swear (or affirm)" that she would "support and defend" the U.S. and state Constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Kearney-Brown inserted revisions: She wrote "nonviolently" in front of the word "support," crossed out "swear," and circled "affirm." All were to conform with her Quaker beliefs, she said.
Kearney-Brown did this several times over her career teaching in California and it was never rejected. But this time she got a letter that said the university's counsel said she couldn't alter the oath (which may or may not be true, as it turns out) and she had to sign it or be fired. She refused to sign and was axed.
Kearney-Brown will be on Talk of the Nation today to talk about what happened to her and why she did what she did.
Should a person be able to change the wording of an oath to suit their religious situation? Atheists are not required to say "under God" while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, nor are they required to swear on a Bible in court. They can affirm their promise to tell the truth. Should the same consideration be extended to other strong religious beliefs?