Marjorie Heins on ‘The Insidious Persistence of Loyalty Oaths’

By May 27, 2008

Marjorie Heins at the Free Expression Policy Project has written a comprehensive and compelling piece on why loyalty oaths for public employees are both anachronistic and inconsistent with the right to free conscience enshrined in the very Constitution such oaths purport to honor. The impetus for Heins’ piece was the termination of Wendy Gonaver, a Quaker lecturer at Cal State-Fullerton who was fired for refusing to sign California’s loyalty oath, which she interpreted as conflicting with her pacifist religious beliefs. (For more details about this specific case, see Azhar’s very comprehensive treatment of the situation here). California’s loyalty oath reads as follows:

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. (Emphasis added.)

This oath requires California public employees not only to promise that they will take certain actions that may conflict with their religious or political beliefs, but also to promise that they have no reservations about doing so. This intrusion into Californians’ innermost thoughts is a violation of their right to freedom of conscience.

As Heins writes:

The oath ritual—even if it merely consists of signing a form—forces millions of Americans to acquiesce in a gesture of political conformity. Whether they consider it a meaningless formality, however, or an annoying, offensive imposition on their freedom of thought, most sign even if they object-to get the job and avoid the hassle. Only dedicated conscientious objectors, often impelled by religious belief, make a fuss.

It was 65 years ago, in a case upholding a child’s First Amendment right to refuse, on grounds of conscience, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, that Justice Robert Jackson penned some of the most-quoted language in the Supreme Court canon. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, shall prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Evidently, the State of California, and many others, do not take this principle seriously when it comes to grown-ups.

Even seemingly innocuous oaths, with their demand for symbolic gestures of loyalty, subtly squelch political dissent—an activity needed today in America more than ever. They impose a "pall of orthodoxy" not only on the classroom but on all of us.