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Enduring oath still testing loyalties

Cal State system ousts another pacifist teacher who objects to a loyalty pledge adopted by California in 1952 to root out communists.

May 02, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

When Wendy Gonaver was offered a job teaching American studies at Cal State 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."

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.

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 Cal State 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.

In February, another Cal State 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 something other than their God.

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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 noncitizens are not required to sign.

UC Berkeley was the first to impose a tough anti-communist loyalty oath in 1949 and 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.

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

The California State University system takes a firmer approach.

Kearney-Brown, the math instructor fired by Cal State East Bay, said she added the word "nonviolently" just as she had when taking previous jobs as a high school teacher. The university, however, told her she could not alter the pledge.

After her case attracted media attention and help from the United Auto Workers, which represents some Cal State employees, the university reversed course. The office of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown drafted a statement declaring that the oath does not commit employees to bear arms in the country's defense. Cal State agreed to let Kearney-Brown attach it to her oath and she was reinstated.

Kearney-Brown said she believed she was defending the Constitution by objecting to the oath and argued that signing a pledge should not be reduced to a meaningless formality.

"The way it's laid out, a noncitizen member of Al Qaeda could work for the university, but not a citizen Quaker," she said.

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

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