Former U.S. Employee Sues Over Loyalty Oath

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
December 22, 1999 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Virginia
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

WASHINGTON–A woman who lost her job for refusing to sign a loyalty oath has filed suit in federal court, the Washington Post reported on December 22nd. The woman claims that the oath violates her First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and free speech and is therefore unconstitutional. The oath is required of almost all of the 1.8 million permanent federal employees.

The woman, Michelle Hall, was willing to subscribe to most of the oath, including promising to “support and defend” the U.S. Constitution. But she objected to a clause that says, “I will bear true faith and allegiance to” the Constitution, according to an 11-page complaint filed by the ACLU of Virginia, which represents Hall. Hall is a Jehovah’s Witness and believes that those words “would contradict her undivided allegiance and faithfulness to Jehovah,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed on Friday, December 17th in Alexandria.

Hall has offered to sign an oath that omits “faith and allegiance” and instead promises not to “violate” or “undermine” any laws or the Constitution and not to seek to overthrow the government, said her attorney, Rebecca Glenberg, the legal director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Hall was hired as a temporary employee at the Fort Belvoir Commissary in 1990. Her temporary appointment ran out this year and she was offered a permanent job in May.

The lawsuit was filed against the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Defense Commissary Agency. According to OPM officials, the agency does not have the legal authority to change the oath, which is set out verbatim in U.S. Code. A spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency said the agency could not comment because officials have not received a copy of the lawsuit.

The OPM has modified the oath in the past to make it acceptable to adherents of other religions, such as Quakers. A law professor at the University of Virginia, Robert M. O’Neil, said that, in light of those accommodations for others, Hall’s lawsuit has a good chance of success. If the government doesn’t accommodate her beliefs, he said, “you’ve got a law that favors one religion over another.” O’Neil also noted that since Hall has a low-level job, the government will be hard pressed to prove that it has a compelling need to force her to sign a particular oath.

Goverment-mandated oaths have long been a source of constitutional debate. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren could not be forced to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1961, the Court held that a Maryland man could not be denied a commission as a notary public for refusing to profess a belief in God.

The lawsuit seeks to have Hall reinstated without having to sign the oath. “The government can’t require you to say something you don’t want to say,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release