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Jehovah's Witness' suit says she lost state job over refusal to take loyalty oath

By
Pamela Manson

Nov. 23 (UPI) -- A Jehovah's Witness is alleging her religious freedom rights were violated when a California agency withdrew a job offer because she declined to sign a loyalty oath promising to defend the state and U.S. constitutions.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Brianna Bolden-Hardge says her sincere religious beliefs mandate that her allegiance is to the Kingdom of God and she cannot engage in any sort of violence in support of a human government. The 31-year-old woman had accepted a position with the California State Controller's Office payroll department.

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Bolden-Hardge asked for a religious accommodation that would allow her to include an addendum to the oath saying her first duty was to God and that she would not take up arms in support of the state. But that request was rejected, according to her suit.

"The SCO failed to explore any available alternative means of accommodating Bolden-Hardge, insisting instead on the loyalty oath without exception, notation or addendum," the suit alleges. "By extending the job offer to Bolden-Hardge, the SCO had deemed her qualified. It rescinded her job offer only after -- and because -- she asked for a religious accommodation."

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The lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 19 and names the SCO and State Controller Betty T. Yee as defendants, asks for unspecified monetary damages.

The suit also seeks a declaration that failing to accommodate a sincere religious belief and refusing to hire someone based on religion violate the U.S. Constitution, the California Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. In addition, it asks the court to require that the SCO make reasonable accommodations to religious beliefs and practices in general and faith-based objections to loyalty oaths in particular.

Bolden-Hardge is represented by James Sonne of the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic; Zeba A. Huq of Stanford Law School's Religious Liberty Clinic; and Wendy Musell, an Oakland, Calif., attorney. On behalf of the legal team, Sonne declined to comment beyond what's in the lawsuit.

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An SCO spokeswoman did not respond to requests for a comment on the suit.

Accommodation denied

Bolden-Hardge was offered a job by the State Controller's Office in July 2017 and was asked to sign the loyalty oath as part of the onboarding process, the suit says.

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The oath states: "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."

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Article XX, Section 3, of the California Constitution requires members of the Legislature, and all public officers and employees to sign the law "except such inferior officers and employees as may be by law exempted."

To Bolden-Hardge, signing the oath would commit her to take up arms in defense of the state, which would be contrary to her faith, the suit says. She agreed to sign the oath if she could include an addendum saying she would uphold the state and U.S. constitutions and "be honest and fair in my dealings and neither dishonor the office by word nor deed."

In addition, the addendum said, "By signing this oath, I understand that I shall not be required to bear arms, engage in violence, nor to participate in political or military affairs. Additionally, I understand that I am not giving up my right to freely exercise my religion, nor am I denouncing my religion by accepting this position."

The SCO said it needed time for its human resources and legal departments to review the matter, then rescinded the job offer a few days later on the ground that the oath could not be modified, according to the suit.

At the time Bolden-Hardge applied for the SCO, she was working for the California Franchise Tax Board. She had declined to sign the loyalty oath when she started the job there in January 2016 and the board had allowed her to remain an employee, the suit says.

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After the SCO job offer was withdrawn, Bolden-Hardge returned to the Franchise Tax Board. The suit said that this time, she was asked to sign the oath and was granted her request to include the addendum.

Bolden-Hardge lodged a discrimination charge against the Controller's Office with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 2018 and filed her suit after she was unable to resolve the complaint administratively.

God and government

There are about 8.6 million Jehovah's Witnesses in the world, about 1.3 million of them in the United States. In accordance with their religious beliefs, adherents do not participate in warfare and they obey the government's laws as long as they do not conflict with God's laws.

Robert Hendriks, the U.S. spokesman for the faith, said that when determining whether to take an oath, a Jehovah's Witness will weigh two complementary Biblical principles. The first one, found in Romans 13:1-5, talks about being in subjection to governing authorities.

"That authority has been allowed to exist because God allows it to exist and we know that governments are very important to keeping order and providing for our freedoms," Hendriks said.

He said the second principle is based on a response Jesus gave when asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. In Matthew 22:20-22, Jesus asked whose inscription was on a coin and after being told it was Caesar's, he replied, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

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Hendriks said Caesar's things are taxes and tributes, while the things granted by God are "our life, our mind, our strength and our heart." For that reason, "we will only give our life for our God," he said.

"When some Christians and some of our brothers and sisters read the sweeping language of a typical loyalty oath, their first reaction might be 'I can't make that promise to anyone other than my God.' We respect a person's right to make that decision. It's their decision and theirs alone," Hendriks said.

For other Jehovah's Witnesses, signing a loyalty oath just affirms their promise to God that they will be subject to the government, Hendriks said. Embedded in the constitution that they're upholding is "our right to not do something as an exercise of our freedom of religion," he said.

"So, a Christian might feel that I can sign this because that very same constitution I'm upholding gives me the right to say no when the government asks me to do something that violates my conscience," he said.

Both decisions are right, Hendriks said.

"It's all about a person's conscience and they need to work through this in their own mind and heart," he said.

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Excluded from state government

Members of other faiths also are faced with the question of whether to take an oath. The Mennonite Church USA addresses the issue in its Article 20, which says, "We commit ourselves to tell the truth, to give a simple yes or no, and to avoid swearing of oaths."

The church notes on its website that Jesus told his disciples not to swear oaths at all but to "let their yes be yes, and their no be no."

"As Christians, our first allegiance is to God," the website says. "In baptism we pledged our loyalty to Christ's community, a commitment that takes precedence over obedience to any other social and political communities."

"A lot of people will just affirm things," said Glen Guyton, the denomination's executive director.

In 2008, Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker, was fired from a job teaching remedial math at California State University-East Bay for refusing to sign the loyalty oath as written. She wanted to insert the word "non-violently" in front of "support" but was told it could not be modified.

Kearney-Brown, who said she included the qualification at previous state jobs, was dismissed but quickly rehired after the news media reported her firing. After a grievance hearing, the matter concluded with the state Attorney General's Office giving her a letter that said she was not required to take any violent action.

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Kearney-Brown called the loyalty oath "meaningless."

"It's not going to stop anyone who wants to overthrow the government," she said.

Jim Lindburg, legislative director of the Friends' Committee on Legislation of California, said the oath, which was put into the state constitution during the 1950s Red Scare over communism, is a relic that has no purpose in today's society.

"The people bearing the brunt of it are Jehovah's Witnesses and Quakers," Lindburg said. "They're the ones being excluded from state government. It seems so senseless in modern times."

A bill that would have allowed employees who have moral, ethical or religious beliefs that conflict with the oath to instead affirm a statement that they will uphold the state and federal constitutions and all other California law was vetoed in 2009 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor said the exemption was unnecessary because existing law accommodated those workers.

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