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News / Politics

Oaths and pledges have been routine for political officials. That’s changing in a polarized America

By JULIE CARR SMYTH and KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press
Published: February 25, 2024, 2:53pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The resignation letter was short and direct.

“I can no longer be under an oath to uphold the New Constitution of Ohio,” wrote Sabrina Warner in her letter announcing she was stepping down from the state’s Republican central committee.

It was just days after Ohio voters resoundingly approved an amendment last November to the state constitution ensuring access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. For many, the vote was a victory after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a constitutional right to abortion in 2022.

For Warner, a staunch abortion opponent, it meant she could no longer stand by the Ohio Constitution she had proudly sworn an oath to uphold just over a year before.

Throughout modern American history, elected officials have sworn oaths to uphold constitutions and said the Pledge of Allegiance without much controversy. In a handful of cases recently, these routine practices have fallen victim to the same political divisions that have left the country deeply polarized.

Disagreements over abortion rights, gun control and treatment of racial minorities are some of the issues that have caused several political leaders to say they cannot take an oath or recite the pledge.

Some Republicans, including Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for governor, point to amendments enshrining abortion rights in state constitutions. Ohio’s protections passed last fall, and advocates are proposing an initiative for the Missouri ballot this year.

Warner signed off her resignation letter, effective two days after Ohio’s vote, with a biblical reference to “the cowardly, the vile, the murderers” and more being “consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” She did not return messages seeking comment.

In Tennessee this month, Democratic Rep. Justin Jones declined to lead the pledge during a legislative session. He gained national attention after being one of two Black lawmakers whom Republicans briefly expelled from the state House last year after he and two other Democrats participated in a demonstration advocating for gun control from the House floor, outraging GOP members because it violated the chamber’s rules.

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Tennessee House members are tapped to find a minister to lead a prayer before the start of a session and then to lead the chamber in the pledge to the American flag. Just before he was to do so, Jones submitted a handwritten note to the House clerk that read, “I prefer not to lead the pledge of allegiance.”

His refusal came as he has criticized his Republican colleagues for being racist and focusing on what he said are the wrong issues, such as targeting the LGBTQ+ community rather than addressing gun control nearly a year after six people, including three children, were killed in a school shooting in Nashville.

While another Democratic lawmaker, an Army veteran, led the pledge without commenting on Jones’ refusal, Republicans quickly expressed their outrage at Jones’ decision. GOP Rep. Jeremy Faison called Jones’ refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance a “disgrace.”

“In my opinion, he should resign. That is an embarrassment to veterans and to people who have come before us,” Faison said.

Jones, responding later to the Republican criticism, said he “couldn’t bring myself to join their performative patriotism as they continue to support an insurrectionist for president and undermine liberty and justice for all.”

Jones’ stance recalled a similar one in 2001, when then-Tennessee Rep. Henri Brooks said she was chastised by Republican leaders for refusing to join her fellow lawmakers in the pledge. Brooks, who is Black, told media outlets at the time that she hadn’t recited the pledge since being in the third grade and declined to do so because the American flag represented the colonies that enslaved her ancestors.

Earlier this year, former President Donald Trump refused to sign a loyalty oath in Illinois, a pledge that has been in place since the McCarthy era.

The part Trump left unsigned confirms that candidates “do not directly or indirectly teach or advocate the overthrow of the government” of the United States or the state or “any unlawful change in the form of the governments thereof by force or any unlawful means.” Trump, who signed the voluntary oath during his presidential runs in 2016 and 2020, has yet to say why he didn’t sign it this time.

He has faced a number of state lawsuits seeking to bar him from the ballot related to his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, an issue that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

His spokesman, Steven Cheung, did not return an email seeking comment but told news outlets in a statement in January: “President Trump will once again take the oath of office on January 20th, 2025, and will swear ‘to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

Unlike with the Pledge of Allegiance, declining to take an oath of office often carries the higher price of being unable to hold an elected position.

In Missouri, Ashcroft drew attention in October when he suggested he might not be able to take the oath of office as governor if voters protect a right to abortion in the state Constitution.

“Any time a statewide official is sworn in, we swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Missouri,” he told reporters after an abortion-related court hearing. “If I cannot do that, then I would have to leave my position. I cannot swear an oath and then refuse to do what I’d said I would do.”

The issue also has roiled Republicans in the Missouri Senate. State Sen. Rick Brattin, head of the state’s chapter of the Freedom Caucus, said if voters in November approve a proposed ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, “You would have to swear an oath to protect and to defend the death of the unborn.”

Similar concerns were expressed at the federal level in the landmark Dobbs case, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

The Foundation to Abolish Abortion argued that the high court’s decision in the case would play a crucial role in how much people respected the Constitution. “American public officials are oath-bound to follow the Court insofar as the Court follows the Constitution, but not farther,” the group and other abortion opponents wrote in a friend of the court brief.

Chris Redfern said the Republican concerns over adding abortion rights to a state constitution is a marked contrast to how Democrats handled a previous flashpoint. He was elected chair of the Ohio Democratic Party in 2005 after voters inserted a ban on same-sex marriage in the state Constitution. He said he doesn’t recall any of the amendment’s opponents considering forgoing their oaths or resigning over it.

“In the old days, before the Tea Party and then Trump, there was a seriousness about the Constitution and taking the oath on swearing-in day,” said Redfern, a former state lawmaker. “Especially with the polarization that Donald Trump has brought on, I don’t think that there’s a respect for these kinds of instruments. There’s certainly no adherence, but I don’t believe that legislators really care all that much. They do know that they have to be sworn in to get paid every couple of weeks.”

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