A Lake Ridge woman who lost her job at the Fort Belvoir Commissary after she refused to sign a loyalty oath has filed suit in Alexandria federal court, saying the oath violates her religious and free speech rights.
The lawsuit filed by Michelle Hall against the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Commissary Agency alleges that the affidavit, required of almost all of the 1.8 million permanent federal employees, is unconstitutional.
Hall, 36, a Jehovah's Witness, 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 American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which represents Hall.
The former commissary worker believes that those words "would contradict her undivided allegiance and faithfulness to Jehovah," according to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday.
Hall has offered to sign an affidavit 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 Virginia ACLU.
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.
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.
But when Hall declined to sign OPM Form 61, which contained the oath, her superiors gave her a choice of resigning or being fired. Hall now works at Food Lion, Glenberg said.
The lawsuit seeks to have her 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 Virginia ACLU.
Government-required oaths have long been a source of constitutional conflict. In 1943, the Supreme Court held that Jehovah's Witness schoolchildren could not be forced to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1961, the high court found that a Maryland man could not be denied a commission as a notary public because he would not profess his belief in God.
Even OPM has made some accommodation for religious beliefs when administering the oath that Hall objects to. Government employees who will not "swear"--usually because they are Quakers--may "affirm," and the words "so help me God" may be omitted.
University of Virginia law professor Robert M. O'Neil said Hall's lawsuit stands a good chance of success because of those prior modifications. Since exceptions are made for Quakers, Hall can argue that her religion also should be accommodated.
"If not . . . you've got a law that favors one religion over another," O'Neil said. Besides, he said, Hall has such a low-level job that the government will have a hard time arguing that it has a compelling need to force her to sign a particular oath.