- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

Call it the case of the religious and the red tape.

For 10 years, Michelle Hall tended to the oranges and carrots as a temporary employee in the produce section at the Fort Belvoir, Va., commissary. And every time she reapplied for a temporary job, she signed the oath of allegiance required of every federal employee.

But last year, when she applied for a permanent position, she balked at signing the oath again as an increasingly committed Jehovah's Witness bible student, she said signing the oath violated her religious beliefs.

Neither the commissary nor the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would grant her an exception, and she was forced to find other work.

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court in Alexandria on her behalf, charging that the oath infringes on her right to free expression of her religion.

Now, barring a settlement, she awaits a court date early next month in which a judge will hear the federal government's motion to dismiss the suit.

Ms. Hall, who lives in Prince William County, had no problem with the parts of the oath in which she would be required to pledge to support the Constitution and to faithfully discharge her duties. But she protested the clause to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution.

Ms. Hall, who declined through her lawyer to speak to a reporter, is a non-baptized Bible student, which means she is still learning the Bible on the way to ultimately becoming a baptized Jehovah's Witness.

Her Bible teacher, June Trusclair, said there is nothing in the faith that forbids signing an oath, but many followers feel it divides their loyalties.

"It's a conscience thing more than anything," Mrs. Trusclair said. "There's not some sort of rule the question is how it's worded."

Ms. Hall felt that the Bible calls for full allegiance to Jehovah, and that the oath would have forced her to divide her allegiance.

Congress first enacted the oath in 1861 as an effort to keep out federal workers whose true allegiance might have lied with the Confederacy.

Since then, every federal employee has had to swear or, if their religion prevents that, affirm the oath.

In court filings the Justice Department, which is defending the government in the case, argues the oath isn't designed to "suppress religious belief or practice" and is meant only to weed out those who would subvert the principles in the Constitution or the federal government.

But the filings never specifically address why that should apply to a produce worker, instead sticking to the fact that everyone signs it.

A Justice Department spokesman couldn't comment on particulars of the case.

What gets Rebecca K. Glenberg, Ms. Hall's lawyer, is Ms. Hall worked for 10 years without any indication of attempts to undermine the government.

Then there's the red tape.

When she first wrote, asking the commissary for a waiver or to consider alternative language, she was told OPM had jurisdiction. When Ms. Glenberg wrote OPM, she was told the commissary had jurisdiction.

Ms. Glenburg wouldn't take a swipe at the bureaucratic red tape Ms. Hall found herself in between the commissary and the OPM.

"I think the letters I received from the two agencies speak for themselves," she said.

Ms. Hall's savior may be the White House, which, it turns out, agrees with her.

The ACLU lawyers found a set of guidelines on religious expression by federal employees issued by the White House in 1997 that, in one example, addresses exactly Ms. Hall's situation:

"An applicant for employment in a governmental agency who is a Jehovah's Witness should not be compelled, contrary to her religious beliefs, to take a loyalty oath whose form is religiously objectionable," the guideline reads.

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