In 1950, Harold Levering, a California assemblyman from Bel Air, proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would require all religious institutions to sign a loyalty oath or lose their tax-exempt status (see Handout 2, The California Loyalty Oath for exact wording). The demand for a loyalty oath already applied to all public employees of the state, but this was the first time in the history of the United States that a government imposed such an oath on a religious group. It was passed into the California state constitution by popular vote in 1952. Religious institutions had until March of 1954 to decide whether or not they would comply.
Most houses of worship signed the oath. The American Unitarian Association and its legal counsel, in a memo distributed to all California Unitarian Societies on March 15, 1954, recommended that Unitarian "churches should make the necessary affidavits and thereby retain their rights to tax exemption" but reserve the right to question the constitutionality of the law. That is to say, sign the oath but think about fighting it in court.
Several congregations, however, decided to break from the majority and refused to sign. Among them was the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. At a special membership meeting on February 21, 1954, the congregation voted 206 to 31 in favor of not signing the declaration. The minutes state:
The new Levering Declaration is rejected, not for its content primarily (for neither this church nor any religious bodies known to us advocate the use of force or violence or other unlawful means of overthrowing the government), but because we do not propose to be a party to violating the U.S. Constitution... Once the right of the state to invade the church is granted by the signing of this present declaration, the entire issue is lost.
Fritchman, in his autobiography, states that he was surprised by the vigor and commitment the Los Angeles congregation exhibited, and he had "refrained from pulpit persuasion" until the motion was passed by the Board. Once passed, he spent the next several years as an outspoken opponent of the law, adding this case to his fight for free speech in the face of government intervention and internal institutional criticism.
According to the provisions of the law, the congregation's tax-exempt status was indeed revoked. Refusing to sign the oath meant the congregation incurred the costs of both the legal battle and the property taxes it was charged until the law was overturned. Committed to this fight, the congregation engaged in special fundraising to cover the costs of this endeavor (see Handout 3, This Could Happen Here).
Along with several other California congregations of Unitarians, Methodists, and Quakers, the congregation fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1958, the Levering oath was declared unconstitutional and taxes paid were refunded to the congregation.
First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles's stance was by no means endorsed or supported by all Unitarians. Rev. Fritchman was believed by many to be a Communist agitator, and although the AUA passed a series of statements condemning the government's infringement on free speech between 1950 and 1960, the Association also made it clear that ministers were expected to denounce Communism. Fritchman's refusal to publicly do so put him at odds with many leading Unitarian voices of the day. The minister of the First Unitarian Church in San Diego wrote to A. Powell Davies and Frederick M. Eliot, expressing his fears that Fritchman's personal influence "is extending far out beyond his own church and involving many Unitarians willy-nilly in the public eye." There were concerns from many that the oath was overshadowing all other Unitarian endeavors, and that, as one letter to the editor of the Christian Register stated, "(the oath) has been blown up to a degree of prominence and attention out of all proportion to its real importance as compared with other domains of the church... is this a church or a political action arena?"
We may be inclined, as contemporary Unitarian Universalists, to be proud of the victory at the Supreme Court and the courageous stance of the congregations that risked financial ruin to stand up for freedom from governmental censorship. However, it is important to remember that many respected and admired Unitarians disagreed with that stance, as a matter of values, and as a matter of strategy.