Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker and graduate student who began teaching remedial math to undergrads Jan. 7, lost her $700-a-month part-time job after refusing to sign an 87-word Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution that the state requires of elected officials and public employees.
"I don't think it was fair at all," said Kearney-Brown. "All they care about is my name on an unaltered loyalty oath. They don't care if I meant it, and it didn't seem connected to the spirit of the oath. Nothing else mattered. My teaching didn't matter. Nothing."
A veteran public school math teacher who specializes in helping struggling students, Kearney-Brown, 50, had signed the oath before - but had modified it each time.
She signed the oath 15 years ago, when she taught eighth-grade math in Sonoma. And she signed it again when she began a 12-year stint in Vallejo high schools.
Each time, when asked to "swear (or affirm)" that she would "support and defend" the U.S. and state Constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Kearney-Brown inserted revisions: She wrote "nonviolently" in front of the word "support," crossed out "swear," and circled "affirm." All were to conform with her Quaker beliefs, she said.
The school districts always accepted her modifications, Kearney-Brown said.
But Cal State East Bay wouldn't, and she was fired on Thursday.
Modifying the oath "is very clearly not permissible," the university's attorney, Eunice Chan, said, citing various laws. "It's an unfortunate situation. If she'd just signed the oath, the campus would have been more than willing to continue her employment."
Modifying oaths is open to different legal interpretations. Without commenting on the specific situation, a spokesman for state Attorney General Jerry Brown said that "as a general matter, oaths may be modified to conform with individual values." For example, court oaths may be modified so that atheists don't have to refer to a deity, said spokesman Gareth Lacy.
Kearney-Brown said she could not sign an oath that, to her, suggested she was agreeing to take up arms in defense of the country.
"I honor the Constitution, and I support the Constitution," she said. "But I want it on record that I defend it nonviolently."
The trouble began Jan. 17, a little more than a week after she started teaching at the Hayward campus. Filling out her paperwork, she drew an asterisk on the oath next to the word "defend." She wrote: "As long as it doesn't require violence."
The secretary showed the amended oath to a supervisor, who said it was unacceptable, Kearney-Brown recalled.
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Shortly after receiving her first paycheck, Kearney-Brown was told to come back and sign the oath.
This time, Kearney-Brown inserted "nonviolently," crossed out "swear," and circled "affirm."
That's when the university sought legal advice.
"Based on the advice of counsel, we cannot permit attachments or addenda that are incompatible and inconsistent with the oath," the campus' human resources manager, JoAnne Hill, wrote to Kearney-Brown.
She cited a 1968 case called Smith vs. County Engineer of San Diego. In that suit, a state appellate court ruled that a man being considered for public employment could not amend the oath to declare: his "supreme allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ Whom Almighty God has appointed ruler of Nations, and expressing my dissent from the failure of the Constitution to recognize Christ and to acknowledge the Divine institution of civil government."
The court called it "a gratuitous injection of the applicant's religious beliefs into the governmental process."
But Hill said Kearney-Brown could sign the oath and add a separate note to her personal file that expressed her views.
Kearney-Brown declined. "To me it just wasn't the same. I take the oath seriously, and if I'm going to sign it, I'm going to do it nonviolently."
Then came the warning.
"Please understand that this issue needs to be resolved no later than Friday, Feb. 22, 2008, or you will not be allowed to continue to work for the university," Hill wrote.
The deadline was then extended to Wednesday and she was fired on Thursday.
"I was kind of stunned," said Kearney-Brown, who is pursuing her master's degree in math to earn the credentials to do exactly the job she is being fired from.
"I was born to do this," she said. "I teach developmental math, the lowest level. The kids who are conditionally accepted to the university. Give me the kids who hate math - that's what I want."
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle