When an Oath Clashes with Personal Convictions

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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?



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I was required to sign a loyalty oath prior to being employed as a graduate assistant at Penn State. I signed, but put a notation at the bottom that I was signing under duress and did not actually agree with what I was signing. It was accepted and I never heard anything more about it.

Sent by Corwin | 2:53 PM | 5-6-2008

I feel strongly about such oaths and the fact that the one man who should honor it hasn't. Compare it to the pledge of allegence. I would much rather take an oath to uphold the constitution which IS our country than pledge to a flag which is a symbol.

Sent by Frank White | 2:55 PM | 5-6-2008

Perhaps the most heinous loyalty oath situation was for Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor. The government declared that it was impossible to tell a loyal Japanese from a disloyal one and rounded up 120,000 into internment camps. Then when the government needed soldiers they decided that on the basis of two questions they could cull the loyal from the disloyal. The questions were given to all JAs over a certain age. The questions were controversial within the internment camps. To paraphrase: 1. Would you fight on any front. 2. Would you renounce your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan.

Sent by Jane Beckwith | 3:01 PM | 5-6-2008

As I recall The POTUS swears an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. Clearly this does not constrain G. W. Bush and his administration to bother to pay any attention to what that may mean. Given this we should all sign them because those oaths are meaningless tripe anyway.

Thanks for making a point to detail the current administrations clear attempts to ignore all loyalty to the US Constitution.


I wonder why I bother paying for you guys sometimes.

Sent by Roy | 3:17 PM | 5-6-2008

As I was listening to today's show, the most important point was cut off at the end due to time restrictions.

The Constitution is the basis for our government and our way of life. It does not support any particular politician, political organization, issue or law. It is the foundation of our laws and system of government and requires that the People have the power.

The bottom line is this: If you are not comfortable with the oath, don't take a job that your pay comes from taxpayer dollars. My husband is a public school teacher. As such, we feel strongly that we must live in the community that pays him. We have done so for more than 20 years. If it were a problem, he would have found another place to work or would have taught in a private school.

If the basic foundation of our government is so awful to you, then don't take a public sector job. Find a job in an NPO or the private sector. Plain and simple.

Sent by Max | 3:55 PM | 5-6-2008

For many (perhaps millions of people), Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (2004) requires large numbers of federal contractor employees doing non-sensitive, routine work to authorize an intrusive "security clearance" or "security screening" or be fired or not allowed to be hired. The authorization allows the government to ask ANY question of ANY person, gather information about relatives and friends, obtain your fingerprints, answers to senstive questions, potentially share responses with other agencies here and abroad, etc. HSPD-12 has led to lawsuits (see http://hspd12jpl.org), petitions, letters to agency heads, concern from members of Congress, etc. More than a few people refuse to comply, so the policy has a chilling effect. (Imagine being asked to do research on global warming under contract but then told you have to submit all sorts of personal information and authorize a background check first. Many scientists would simply say no. In my case it was education research about public schools.) Lots of people feel they have no choice because they need the work -- yet at the same time many believe the policy is unwise or illegal.

Sent by Andy | 5:18 PM | 5-6-2008

Written and signed oaths are the most outdated form of compliance. This goes back to promises of allegiance oaths that Japanese Americans were persuaded to sign after Pearl Harbor. We are a nation of mixed races and religions and not every part of the Constituion will match up exactly. I also think it shows lack of integrity to give and oath like that to a person whom you do not know all of there beliefs. You're just "calling them out" over words.

Sent by Angry Charles | 6:01 PM | 5-6-2008

It is the part that says "against all enemies foriegn and domestic" that bothers me the most. Who decides who an enemy is? Is a university dean or administrator or board of trustees? Can a state legislature, Congress or the President really decide whether I can be a public employee based upon my signature on a loyalth oath?
If I do sign such an oath and then exercise my constitutional right to say, protest the War in Iraq, can I lose my public employment?
This seems to me as unconstitutional (not withstanding who occupies the Supreme Court.

Sent by Steven Faulding | 7:04 PM | 5-6-2008

Why not take job in the civilian sector. The government should expect people to support and defend the Constitution. Defense does not have to mean armed defense!

Sent by Chris Daniels | 7:15 PM | 5-6-2008

When hired by a state of California control acency I raised my right hand and the oath was administered in person!
Upon leaving the room I made a mental note to read the constitution of the state of California to see what was in there, as I had just sworn to uphold it.
I do not mind defending my constitutions though, especially since they were paying me and they had health coverage.

Sent by Harley Hansen | 1:38 AM | 5-7-2008

When you signed it becomes a binding agreement! If you can't live with that, change it or don't take the job!

Ms. Kearney-Brown did the right thing, but it was handled all wrong. She has a wonderfully simple case for wrongful termination (with back pay AND punitive damages).

Sent by Harold | 3:51 PM | 5-7-2008

My name is Marianne Kearney-Brown and I was fired from Cal State East Aby for loyalty oath issues. I was willing to sign the loyalty oath; I signed it twice in the HR office. I was told my addition of the word "nonviolently" was unacceptable and was given no real justification or explanation. I wrote a letter to the HR director asking for clarification and she responded with a very long letter citing a case in 1968 where a prospective county employee wrote a lengthy, somewhat incoherent addendum which, among other things, expressed his disappointment in the constitution. The ruling basically said it was not reasonable to require an agency to decipher such an addendum, and I can understand that. The HR director went on to say that since my addition was "inconsistent and incompatible" with the oath, they could not allow it. I would, as a comprise (sic) be allowed to submit a letter or memo expressing my point of view. I had two days to sign the oath or be fired.
I did not want to express a point of view. I wanted to know why nonviolence was incompatible with the oath. They would not explain that and at one point told me whether it was or wasn't did not matter--I had to sign the oath or be fired. Though it did not matter to them, it mattered to me--I am a Quaker and a pacifist and if nonviolence is incompatible with oath, I cannot sign it.
The day before I was fired, an attorney in the Office of General Counsel told me that the language of the oath "did not seem to suggest" that violence would be required, and reminded me yet again that if I did not sign the oath I would be fired.
The language of the case they cited did not seem to suggest that clarifications to the oath were forbidden, yet they were adamant that my simple addition would not be allowed. Various representative of the University spent a great deal of time maintaining unequivocally that I had to sign the oath, as is, or be fired. I told them if they would write one simple sentence declaring with the same level of certainty that violence was not required, I would put that sentence in my file and sign the unaltered oath. They did not respond and I was fired.
I could not in good conscience sign an oath for that University under those conditions. I know we have no guaranteed right to public employment, but does it then follow that government have no obligation to respect strongly held religious beliefs? Does this oath really ensure that people are loyal? Many of the grad students I worked with were surprised to find out they had signed loyalty oaths. Are they more loyal than I am for signing the unaltered oaths without comment?

I felt like they were testing me--I felt as though they wanted to know how willing I was to defend the Constitution and I feel like I passed that test.
I was in Burma a few years ago. It was chilling to see the effect repression has on a population. It inspires me that last fall the Burmese people were willing to risk their very lives in order to speak out for democracy. I do not know how a country becomes like that, but if ours ever does, I want to know that valued my right to free expression . I would not want to look back and remember that I had unquestioningly signed a loyalty oath because a lawyer said I had to.

Sent by Marianne Kearney-Brown | 12:39 AM | 5-8-2008

I am a member of the Church of the Brethren, an anabaptist denomination, so I am not supposed to take oaths according to my denomination. I found myself affirming an oath, which really comes down to the same thing as swearing an oath when I was inducted into AmeriCorps. I affirmed that I would defend the US Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

At the time I pondered how much this was committing me to the prosecution of President George W. Bush and others within the administration. If I defend the Constitution then that can seriously conflict with any respect for those in power.

Sent by Joseph Tolton | 3:27 PM | 5-8-2008

What happens to foreign nationals? Do they need to support the USA constitution or are none employed in public service?

Sent by John Malpass | 1:02 AM | 5-9-2008

Foreign national do not have to sign.

Sent by Marianne Kearney-Brown | 3:11 PM | 5-10-2008

Taken a loyalty oath to teach math over 20 years ago for an Arizona Public State High School. Have hire on two more times in Arizona High Schools without being asked to take an loyalty oath, so figured Arizona must have dropped the loyalty oath over fifteen years ago.

Politicians from long line of Quakers during the time of the Continental Congress of the Revolutionary War requested Quakers to take loyalty oaths, some who chose, not to where interned in Virginia until it was realized they did not support violent war, whether it be the English or the Revolutionaries and therefore were sent back to Philadelphia.

The oath I sign twenty years ago very much had the same wording of which, California has which I agreed with, though of course my defense being a Quaker also would be nonviolently.

It is not a question whether or not I support the wording of the loyalty oath, to sign when I agree with it is just as bad as signing it when I do not agree with it.

If the government is a free an democratic government with "justice and freedom for all" then that government would not have pledges or loyalty oaths.

Mark Elliott

Sent by Mark Elliott | 12:59 AM | 6-15-2008

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