Are Loyalty Oaths Really Necessary?

Are Loyalty Oaths Really Necessary?

 

WENDY GONAVER LOST HER TEACHING job at <b>California State University, Fullerton</b> in May because she refused to sign a state-mandated loyalty oath for all state employees. Gonaver, a practicing Quaker and pacifist, believes the oath is an infringement on her religious beliefs and her rights to free speech. Gonaver offered to sign the oath as long as she could attach a statement expressing her pacifism. The school turned her down.

CSU officials say they are simply following the law, and Gonaver, as a state employee, is required to sign the oath. But unlike some other institutions, CSU doesn't permit employees to submit personal statements with the oath. "The position of the university is that her entire added material was against the law," says CSU spokesperson Clara Potes-Fellow.

If the case sounds familiar, that's because another teacher, Marianne Kearney-Brown, was fired from <b>CSU East Bay</b> in February for a similar reason. Kearney-Brown, also a Quaker, inserted "nonviolently" in front of the word "defend" when she signed her oath.

On the surface, the oath has all the significance of, say, wearing a flag pin on your lapel.

In Kearney-Brown's case, however, the parties reached a compromise. After her case gained national media attention, Kearney-Brown was quietly reinstated. During a grievance hearing, she signed a new document offered by the school that read: "Signing the oath does not carry with it any obligation or requirement that public employees bear arms or otherwise engage in violence." So far, such a compromise has not been offered to Gonaver.

To be fair, the schools are not to blame here. The oath has been part of California's state constitution since the 1950s. Although it has been challenged, the courts have upheld its legality. And many people, particularly in the post-9/11 world, support the ideas behind it.

The law says that all California state employees must sign it or (presumably) lose their jobs. Yet the oath says that the signer "take(s) this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion." So there's something of a "Catch-22" situation here: Don't sign the oath and you could lose your job. But by signing the oath to keep your job, you must suppress your personal beliefs. Or at least pretend that you do. I'm willing to bet that there are more than a few California state employees that had their fingers crossed when they took the oath. And if so, then, technically at least, they are violating the oath. Will the state weed out these nonconformists in a McCarthy-style witch hunt? Of course not. And no one really expects that a college history teacher might ever be called on to take up arms against her religion to defend the constitution. But the situation raises the question of whether a loyalty oath, which legal experts commenting on Kearney-Brown's case agree is largely symbolic, carries any real weight. On the surface, the oath has all the significance of, say, wearing a flag pin on your lapel. It has little bearing on a person's qualifications for a job.

California is not alone in this. Other state university systems require their employees to sign loyalty oaths, and people have lost their jobs for not signing. I'm curious to hear your opinions. If you had to take a loyalty oath, did you have reservations about doing so? And if you support the oath, as many people do, I want to hear about that, too.

<em>University Business</em> is pleased to introduce "UB Buzz," a new blog dedicated to higher education news updates throughout the day, resources, and commentary. Visit blogs.universitybusiness.com and see what the buzz is about.

 

<em>Write to Tim Goral at tgoral@universitybusiness.com.</em>


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