An atheist claiming a religious exemption to the California Oath of Office?

I am a secular humanist who was just offered a public-sector job in California. One of the pre-employment papers I am required to sign is a short version of the California oath of office:

By California law, I cannot get paid unless I sign this oath, and falsely signing it is a felony punishable by up to 4 years in prison. SB 115 (2009) sought to create a religious exemption to this law after some Quakers were fired for refusing to sign it. Then Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it, calling it redundant, but nonetheless the bottom of the document I was asked to sign claims a religious exemption is allowed.

I understand this is just a silly formality left over from McCarthyism, but I take my oaths pretty seriously. I definitely have reservations to swearing this oath, largely motivated by my “religious” beliefs:

  1. The California Constitution, in its preamble, already violates the principle of separation of church and state: “…grateful to Almighty God…”. I strongly object to this phrasing and would absolutely refuse to support or defend it.

  2. The US Constitution is currently under threat of revision by an orchestrated corruption between the religious right, corrupt capitalists, and possible Russians. In the very near future we may see it perverted against the public interest. I object on the grounds that my loyalty as a public servant should be to the American people, not a political document held hostage by an antiquated and flawed electoral system and at the mercy of undemocratic top-down revisionism, either through a rigged Supreme Court or a coalition of state Republican parties; Roe v Wade is the one currently making the rounds, but certainly other parts are similarly at risk (citizenship, etc.). The Constitution may be the supreme law, but law itself should be subservient to the people and often is not.

These are sincerely held beliefs in accordance with my “religious” philosophy – that individuals and governments alike should act in the common good, guided by reason and learning, not faith and superstition – but would the State of California recognize secular humanism as a “religion”? Are there any other exemptions I can lawfully utilize to avoid signing this oath?

The words “(or affirm)” are right there in it. That’s your exemption. You affirm instead of swear.

I doubt it but you’d need to research what "religion’ means in the US.

2 points. The preamble to legislation isn’t actually part of the act, that wiffly waffly preamble isn’t something you’ll be affirming to uphold, etc.

Any revision you are worried about may never happen. Can you affirm to uphold what it says on the day you affirm?

I’m going to advise you the same way I’d advise county clerks who refuse to issue certain marriage certificates:

If you can’t, in good conscience, do the job, don’t accept the job. You feel that the foundational documents of the government you would be working for are so flawed that you cannot promise to support them. Seems to me that a public sector job is not for you.

As a public sector employee I have spent the last eight years, ok almost eight but election time is soon, working in an administration with political views that differ from mine. Perhaps more importantly I work for a state government in which the legislature is overwhelmingly controlled by those I do not agree with.

IF one day I felt that my ability to do the work for the people, and particularly the constituency of the agency I work for, was impaired beyond usefulness by either the executive or legislature; then I would resign. I am neither a political appointment nor management. My departure will not make one difference in how business is conducted. But I would not work for a government that is that opposed to my principles.

The situation is no different for you. Yes, the US Constitution may be changed at some point in the future. This is no more true or untrue than it ever has been. Every Congress passes or attempts to pass legislation regarding a flag burning amendment. It goes nowhere and will likely never go anywhere. The CA Constitution preamble has some religious language, so does the money in your pocket. Is this the fight you are fighting first? Can you do good with the job? Maybe you have to leave it but face that day when it comes, until then try to be of service.

I’m not clear if the objection is to the wording of the oath, or that the oath binds you to support things that you object to, like the preamble to the California Constitution.

Note that the oath only binds you to oppose “enemies” of the constitutions, not that you agree to absentmindedly support every jot and tiddle of them.

But, as a public employee, you may find yourself in situations where you are required to implement laws and policies you disagree with. If you believe this is a issue for you, it is a far larger problem than just signing an oath.

The (or affirm) was added for us Quakers in the US Constitution due to an aversion to swearing oaths. It has trickles down to states.

I see upon further investigation that two friends felt that the oath was “obligating them to participate in war or violence.”

AFAIK this is not a common hang-up.

Looks like they were eventually hired.

No matter if you sign the oath/affirmation or not, if you are looking at the constitution of California and thinking “I don’t support that” then the oath is not the problem; the job is.

When I was “sworn in” prior to testifying in court, I declined and explained why. No problem, they asked that I affirm, which I did.

I’ve personally never understood the distinction between swearing and affirming, and as a long-time, sometimes militant atheist, I’ve always sworn instead of affirmed during my many enlistment oaths because I don’t place any religious meaning on that word.

I do, however, omit the optional “So help me God” bit at the end, but per the OP, that’s not even an issue. I guess I need a clarification, OP, what’s your exact issue with the oath?

Read the OP again, people. His objection is not to the oath itself, or to swearing versus affirming, but to the Constitution of the State of California and the Constitution of the United States of America. He thinks they are bad, or may soon become bad, so he doesn’t want to promise to defend them. So, another vote from me tor “this job is not for you.”

Re-reading it, I think you’re right. Especially in his bullet number 2: his objection to the upholding the Constitution isn’t actually a matter of religious or atheistic views; it is his political views that “the people” ought to trump laws. That is antithetical to government service. IMHO, he should not take the job if he has a philosophical objection to implementing duly passed laws when they come into conflict with his opinion of what’s best for “the people.”

I’d tend to agree with that. If it’s just wording of the oath, OP can strike out “swear” and circle “affirm” on the form.

If OP’s objection is to the concept of defending the US and state constitutions, that’s a fundamental conflict with the job.

Supporting and defending the constitution doesn’t mean you have to support and defend each and every part of it, every last punctuation mark, plus any amendments that may or may not be added in the future, plus supreme court cases that reinterpret the constitution to mean something slightly different from what we thought they meant.

If you generally support the idea of having a constitution and you approve of 90%+ of what’s currently in the constitution, I’d say that’s good enough to say you support it and will defend it.

However, if you honestly feel that you support people instead of words, that’s a problem and I think you’re on the wrong side there. That’s like saying you support a particular football team instead of supporting the rules of football. Even worse, it’s a slippery slope toward saying you support Roger Goodell instead of the NFL. That’s how we get dictatorships. Here in America, we are supposed to believe that no one is above the law. Conversely, that means the law is above everyone. Pure democracy follows the will of the majority, but a constitutional democracy protects minorities from the will of the majority. Two wolves and one sheep shouldn’t vote on what to have for lunch. They should abide by the principle of equal protection under the law. That’s what “the constitution” is all about. Ask yourself, do you support this concept?

That’s not to say that the constitution is perfect and doesn’t need fixing here and there. It’s a work in progress.

Let me leave you with an analogy. Suppose you promised to “support and defend” your 2007 Toyota Camry. Then a month later you find out that the water pump has gone bad. You need a new water pump. You remove the old pump and throw it in the trash. A journalist jumps out from behind the trash can, holding a video camera and a microphone, and accuses you of violating your oath to defend the water pump. Piffle or not piffle?

Right. The position is as an employee of the body politic known as “State of California”, itself a part of the collective polity known as “United States of America” so the job is to implement the constitutions, laws and policies of those entities. Making the oaths to the constitutions are basically part of the concept of “government of laws, not of men”.

I wonder how OP felt about those clerks who refused to issue marriage licenses even after SCOTUS ruled on marriage equality, and claimed a “religious belief” exception.

As others have said:

An affirmation is not a religious statement. There’s no reason an atheist can’t make an affirmation.

The Constitutions of both California and the United States are laws. If you feel that your personal beliefs would interfere with your ability to carry out the laws that are a requirement of the job then don’t take the job.

I disagree. I see a significant difference between approving of what’s in the Constitution and supporting what’s in the Constitution. You can support one hundred percent of the Constitution while disapproving of all of it. And one hundred percent support is what is required of public officials.

If you think a law is bad, you work on changing it. You don’t evade it. You uphold that law right up to the day it is repealed.

What does it mean to “falsely sign” it, or whatever the wording describing the felony? Does that mean it is a felony to break the oath? Say Roe vs Wade is reversed, which you stated as a fear. Does writing an essay saying it should NOT have been reversed constitute breaking the oath? Would breaking any law, even jaywalking, get you slapped with a felony oath breaking charge? How long are you bound to the oath? Even after you get a job in Florida and sign an oath to its constitution? What does it mean to defend it? Guard a paper copy? Say “I agree with everything in it 100%”? Say “I agree we should have a constitution, but not necessarily with everything in it?”

It appears that the OP is more against the culture of the government of California and the US based upon both’s constitutions. Since these are the founding documents upon which your potential employer is based upon, sounds like you shouldn’t work for an employer that you fundamentally disagree with.

In the same vein that if you disagreed with a private sector company’s mission or vision statement, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to work there either.

I’m an IT person who has worked for public and private organizations (and I currently work for a state government agency). I sometimes have to convey, explain, and at times even enforce policies I think are bad. I will sometimes even express that I disagree with them as I do so. It doesn’t matter as long as I do it.

I don’t see much of a difference here. What you have to ask yourself is whether you think you can do that. I’ve found that I can. And I’ve also (not often but on rare occasions) been able to make small changes in these organizations. That’s something I couldn’t do from the outside.

So just ask yourself if you can still do the job. If you can’t then find another one.