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Ousted teacher revises oath of loyalty

Cal State Fullerton vows to work with her but says the job's filled.

May 09, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A Quaker who lost her appointment as a Cal State Fullerton lecturer after she objected to a state loyalty oath submitted a revised statement of her beliefs Thursday in a bid to win the job back.

People For the American Way, a Washington-based civil rights group now representing lecturer Wendy Gonaver, called on the university to reinstate her and adopt a policy protecting the religious freedom of all California State University system employees.

"She is willing to sign the oath as long as she can exercise her free-speech rights and note that her views as a Quaker would prevent her from taking up arms," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of the organization and a constitutional lawyer. "We would like to avoid filing a lawsuit, but we are certainly prepared to do so."

The loyalty oath was added to the California Constitution in 1952 to drive communists out of public jobs but in recent years it has forced out religious believers such as Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Gonaver was hired to teach classes in American and women's studies at Fullerton this academic year. But in August, just before classes were to start, she was told of the state requirement that she sign the oath promising to defend the U.S. and California constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

A pacifist, she feared that signing the oath could commit her to bear arms. She said she would sign the pledge if she could submit a statement of her beliefs, a practice allowed at the University of California. But Cal State officials rejected her request, saying the addendum she proposed was illegal.

After the Los Angeles Times reported on Gonaver's case a week ago, People For the American Way offered to represent her. Kolbert said the U.S. has a long history of religious freedom and that the university should protect civil liberties.

Christine Helwick, general counsel for the 23-campus Cal State system, said in an e-mail Thursday that the university now was willing to work with Gonaver and her attorneys.

"The campus is now going to engage her in an interactive process to see if her issues with the Constitutionally mandated oath can be resolved," Helwick said.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, the civil liberties group helped Gonaver refine her statement of beliefs and submitted the revised wording to the university.

Gonaver said in an interview that she was pleased to be represented by the group.

"In signing the required loyalty oath I must also attest to my belief that such an oath violates my right to free speech, and could be construed to express undertakings that are contrary to my nonviolent religious beliefs as a Quaker," she said in the new statement.

Helwick said the campus might not be able to rehire her despite the revision: " . . . the position for which she originally applied last August had to be filled by someone else."

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richard.paddock@ latimes.com

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