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Instructor fired over loyalty oath reinstated

Cal State East Bay teacher refused to sign on religious grounds.

March 08, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

HAYWARD, CALIF. — A Quaker math instructor who was fired by Cal State East Bay after she refused on religious grounds to sign a state loyalty oath has been reinstated, university officials said Friday.

Marianne Kearney-Brown, a pacifist, was concerned that signing the oath to "support and defend" the California and U.S. constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic" could commit her to take up arms. She was fired Feb. 28 after she inserted the word "nonviolently" before "support and defend" and signed that version.

The university, averting a showdown over religious freedom, agreed to rehire Kearney-Brown after the office of state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown helped draft a statement declaring that the oath does not commit employees to bear arms in the country's defense.

Kearney-Brown, 50, said she was relieved that the issue was resolved and excited to return next week to teaching her class in remedial math. "I just want to teach kids who hate math," she said. "That's all I want to do."

The idea that someone could be fired for refusing to sign a loyalty oath came as a surprise to many Californians who were unaware that public employees are still required to sign it. The pledge was added to the state Constitution in 1952 at the height of anti-Communist hysteria and has remained a prerequisite for public employment ever since. All state, city, county, public school, community college and public university employees are required to sign the 86-word oath. Noncitizens are exempt.

Typically, new employees sign it as a matter of routine along with a stack of other required employment documents. Some public employees say they don't recall signing it.

"A lot of people are saying it's not a big deal, but I just couldn't do it," Kearney-Brown said. "Is the country safer because people sign it without thinking about it?"

The firing of Kearney-Brown, who also is a graduate student at the campus, brought widespread criticism from faculty members, students, Quakers and civil-liberties advocates. Some faculty members began circulating a petition objecting to it. The United Auto Workers, which represents teaching assistants, pursued a grievance on Kearney-Brown's behalf.

"People were outraged," said Henry Reichman, a Cal State East Bay history professor and chairman of the Academic Senate. "I was very vocal on the campus that this was an outrageous thing."

Reichman said that he did not fault campus administrators for the firing and that they were put in an awkward position because of the constitutional requirement that every employee sign the oath.

"It's an anachronism," he said. "It's left over from the McCarthy era. I would like to see the Legislature repeal this -- although on the priority list of civil liberties issues in the country, there are a lot of things that are a lot higher."

Kearney-Brown, who began teaching high school math in 1994, said she had been allowed to add the word "nonviolently" when she signed the oath on earlier occasions.

She was hired at Cal State East Bay in January to teach remedial math and received a stellar job evaluation before her dismissal.

After Kearney-Brown added "nonviolently" to the oath, university officials sternly told her that it was "impermissible" to modify the pledge.

Kearney-Brown accused the university of turning the matter of the oath into a "meaningless formality."

"It bothers me that no one took me or my religious concerns seriously," she wrote in a letter to CSU legal counsel Eunice Chan.

The university invited Kearney-Brown to write an explanation of her views that could be included in her personnel file -- as long as her statement did not negate the oath.

Instead, she asked the university to give her a statement declaring that signing the oath would not require her to take up arms.

"I do support the Constitution," she said before she was rehired. "I value and honor it. To be honest, I feel like I am defending it by doing this."

After Kearney-Brown filed the grievance over her firing, the university consulted with the attorney general's office and produced the kind of document she had requested.

"You should know that signing the oath does not carry with it any obligation or requirement that public employees bear arms or otherwise engage in violence," read the unsigned statement. "This has been confirmed by both the United States Supreme Court . . . and the California attorney general's office."

With that document stapled to the oath, Kearney-Brown signed it.

Clara Potes-Fellow, a spokeswoman for the 23-campus Cal State system, said it had not changed its position by rehiring Kearney-Brown and the university was pleased by the final result.

"This is the best of all outcomes," Potes-Fellow said. "We are delighted that finally this was resolved."

Kearney-Brown, though happy to be going back to work, said she remains disappointed by the university's handling of the matter. "Here was an issue of religious freedom and they weren't defending the Constitution," she said.

Her ordeal behind her, she said she still views the loyalty oath as a useless requirement.

"The way it's laid out, a noncitizen member of Al Qaeda could work for the university but not a citizen Quaker," she said. "Why not an oath that says, 'I will respect every student,' or 'I will vote in every election.' Something that makes sense."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The loyalty oath

From Article XX of the California Constitution:

"I, ______, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter."

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