The more Marianne Kearney-Brown learned about the loyalty oath she had to sign to work for California State University, East Bay, a decade ago, the less she wanted anything to do with it.
To her, the oath was a McCarthy-era relic that disturbed her faith as a Quaker. When an administrator told her it was meaningless, she knew she wouldn’t put her name on it.
Her stance cost her the job.
“As a Quaker, we’re reluctant to sign meaningless oaths,” said Kearney-Brown, who’s now a member of the Vallejo City Unified School District.
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She was the last Californian punished by a group of anti-communist state laws that remain on the books 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They’re rarely enforced, and when they are, they tend to snag Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses instead of communists.
They’ve also proved impossible to repeal.
This week, a bill that would have struck a provision banning communists from working for the state failed when its author rescinded it out of respect for Vietnamese immigrants who took offense to it. It would not have addressed the loyalty oath requirement that snagged Kearney-Brown and another Quaker in 2008, but it reopened the same Cold War wounds.
Until he pulled it, Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta’s bill had cleared the Assembly by a 41-30 vote and was moving to a Senate committee.
His decision echoed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008 veto of a broader bill based on Kearney-Brown’s experience that would have killed the ban on communists working for the state, struck down the education codes that bar communists from teaching in schools and allowed a religious exemption to the loyalty oaths that public servants must swear.
“Many Californians have fled communist regimes, immigrated to the United States and sought freedom in our nation because of the human rights abuses perpetuated in other parts of the world. It is important particularly for those people that California maintains the protections of current law,” Schwarzenegger wrote.
Until he retracted the bill, Bonta cast it as an uncontroversial attempt to delete a law that became obsolete in 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned a New York measure that required public university professors to sign loyalty oaths and allowed the state to fire employees if they were connected with seditious groups.
In fact, the language of the anti-communist law Bonta wants to strike is contradicted by state nondiscrimination policies that ban public agencies from firing employees because of their political leanings.
“Many folks believe that right now just looking at the state law that communists are barred from serving as government employees and by removing that law they would be allowed to serve,” Bonta said.
But, he found after reviewing the law, “nothing would change whether it remains or not.”
His argument that his bill simply aimed to “clean up” an unenforceable law didn’t hold with Republicans. They lambasted Bonta’s proposal as “blatantly offensive” and contrary to “everything we stand for.”
Sen. Janet Nguyen, a Republican lawmaker who is Vietnamese, found the bill “insulting.”
She was escorted off the Senate floor in February when she criticized the late Sen. Tom Hayden’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Bonta’s bill struck the same nerve for her and others whose families escaped communist regimes in Vietnam and in Cambodia, where millions died in purges after the war.
“Many Californians bear the painful scars of having lived under a communist regime. It’s not like a second or third generation. We lived it,” she said. Bonta’s bill is “quite offensive to all of us.”
California’s anti-communist laws date back to a statewide version of the congressional investigations that famously sought to root out communists in the federal government, some under the leadership of the late Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy.
The California Legislature’s un-American activities committee kicked off in 1941, launching investigations into Nazis, communists and Japanese citizens practicing what was then their home country’s state religion of Shintoism. After World War II, its focused narrowed to communists, looking for them in Hollywood and in academia.
The committee’s work led to laws in the 1940s and early ’50s that allowed school districts to fire teachers with suspected ties to communists and compelled public employees to sign loyalty oaths specifically disavowing the Communist Party.
Public schoolteachers in Los Angeles lost their jobs when they declined to answer questions about communists. A piano player employed by UCLA was fired in 1950 because of her suspected ties to communists.
That year, University of California regents fired 31 academics who refused to sign loyalty oaths. They were reinstated in 1952 after the state Supreme Court struck down a part of the loyalty oath that addressed communism.
One of the fired professors, David Saxon, went on to become president of the University of California system. “I was perfectly willing to say that I was not going to go ahead and sign that oath. I thought it was wrong, and I was willing to explain why, and I did,” he said at a 1999 conference on the legacy of the loyalty oaths.
After the McCarthy-era heyday, the state’s anti-communist laws occasionally led to flare-ups at college campuses, such as an effort to force UCLA to fire professor Angela Davis in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party. She kept her job that year.
More recently, the laws snared academics with strong religious beliefs, like Kearney-Brown. Another Quaker, Wendy Gonaver, lost a job opportunity at CSU Fullerton in the same year that CSU East Bay retracted its offer to Kearney-Brown.
Both women were later offered jobs at the universities, and they were allowed to slightly modify their loyalty oaths. Kearney-Brown added the word “nonviolently” to hers.
“If the intention is to ask: ‘Will you support and defend the Constitution?’ You should be able to say: ‘Yes, I will, and I will do it in this manner,’ ” Kearney-Brown said.
The UC and CSU systems still require faculty to sign pledges that they’ll uphold California laws. Both systems also have policies saying they won’t consider political affiliations when they hire and promote staff.
Professors sometimes are surprised when they’re presented with the oaths, said Jennifer Eagan, president of the California Faculty Association.
“It does seem like a relic of a bygone era that we can do without,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the provision being invoked now in a way that wouldn’t spur action” to defend the faculty member.
Her union, along with the California Teachers Association, endorsed the 2008 bill that would have repealed anti-communist portions of the state’s education codes. The unions did not weigh in on Bonta’s bill.
Neither did the Communist Party. It watched the legislation move forward, and quietly pulled for it.
“We believe it corrects a wrong,” said Rossana Cambron, 60, of Los Angeles, the vice chairwoman of Communist Party USA.
Kearney-Brown, 59, taught at CSU East Bay as a math professor for a few years after reaching a compromise on the loyalty oath. In 2012, she launched a math academy in downtown Vallejo aiming to prepare younger students for college.
In December, she raised her right hand and swore an oath to support the Constitution as a newly elected school board member. Again, she added the word “nonviolently” to her pledge.
She cheered when she heard a news report about Bonta introducing his bill and had been rooting for its success.
The McCarthy-era laws were “designed to discriminate against a class of people,” she said. “This has such an ugly history; it seems like a no-brainer to get rid of it.”
California anti-communist laws
California passed several laws in the 1940s and ’50s that aimed to root out communists from serving in government. They are:
The Levering Act of 1950: Lawmakers modified a loyalty oath required of public employees in the state Constitution to specifically target communists. The state Supreme Court struck down that anti-communist language in 1967. The oath still characterizes civil servants as civil defense workers. Elected officials, university faculty and many public employees are still required to sign it.
Public schools: The Dilworth Act of 1953 allows school boards to fire communist teachers.
Civil servants: Another 1953 law bans communists and people who advocate for the overthrow of government from working for the state.