First Unitarian Church for Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles

PETITIONER: First Unitarian Church for Los Angeles
RESPONDENT: County of Los Angeles et al.
LOCATION: First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1957-1958)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 357 US 545 (1958)
ARGUED: Apr 08, 1958
DECIDED: Jun 30, 1958
GRANTED: Oct 21, 1957

A. L. Wirin - for the petitioners
Gordon Boller - for the respondents

Facts of the case

These are two consolidated cases concerning property tax exemption under the California Constitution and California Revenue and Taxation Code (CRTC) for real property and buildings used solely for religious worship. The California Constitution requires denial of tax exemption to any person or organization who advocates the overthrow of the U.S. Government or the State of California by violent or unlawful means. To enforce this, a provision of the CRTC requires those applying for tax exemption to sign an oath declaring that they do not engage in that prohibited activity.

In both cases, the Los Angeles assessor denied tax exemption because the churches refused to agree to the oath. The churches paid their taxes under protest and sued the County of Los Angeles for a refund. The churches argued that requiring them to agree to the oath violated the U.S. Constitution. In 382, the trial court upheld the oath and the Supreme Court of California affirmed. In 385, the court upheld the oath under the U.S. Constitution, but held that it violated the California Constitution because it excluded householders from the requirement. The Supreme Court of California reversed.


Do the CRTC and California Constitution provisions requiring those applying for tax exemption to agree to an oath promising not to overthrow the government by violent means violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for First Unitarian Church for Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 08, 1958 (Part 1) in First Unitarian Church for Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 08, 1958 (Part 2) in First Unitarian Church for Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles

A. L. Wirin:

-- of the court is at page 35, the dissents are at page 57.

Did they deal with both the statute and the constitutional provision?

They did both, yes they did.

Now these petitioners are not the only persons or churches in California who felt themselves unable to sign the oath, there are two cases pending before Your Honors, in the form of an appeal in which this Court has not acted upon the appeal, they are on behalf of the First Methodist Church of San Leandro and the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley.

First Methodist Church of San Leandro as appears from the record in this Court, in that case deemed that Methodist discipline prevented it.

If it were to comply with Methodist discipline from complying with this requirement, the first -- these two churches with leave of this Court have filed briefs amici, as has the Philadelphia yearly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Southern California.

The Orange Grove yearly meeting took the position that this requirement violated its conscience and its commitment to Christ and therefore that it was unable to comply with this requirement.

Now in a word, the nub of the argument which I shall present is something like this, that the requirements, particularly again the statutory requirements, open due process because unreasonable and arbitrary and more particularly those, I'm still stating the summary of my argument, that on the one hand there is no support for the legislation or the constitutional amendment in any real need or any real danger existing in California warranting this or similar legislation on the one hand.

And on the other, the requirements are so broad and sweeping, affecting thousands, hundreds of thousands more than a million persons in California, are so broad and sweeping on the one hand and so deep and offensive and intrusion into privacy and into the privacy of the spirit and the mind of man, so that a balancing of any real concern for national security of California on the one hand and off the sweeping inroads on the other by this legislation would require this Court, assuming this Court were to adopt and follow the narrowest kind of jurisdiction which it could take, assuming this Court to exercise its jurisdiction most reluctantly in view of the fact that was involved here as state legislation, as distinguished from federal legislation in giving the states the widest reasonable scope for authority in dealing with so difficult a problem as national security, assuming all these -- that this legislation opens federal due process.

Felix Frankfurter:

I take your argument narrow point first.

A. L. Wirin:

Indeed, and so I proceed to do so.

Hugo L. Black:

And you eliminate due process (Inaudible)

A. L. Wirin:

We are raising questions of equal protection in our briefs.

I have been taking about the thrust of my oral argument.

Your Honors need not reach the problem of equal protection if you are -- if you agree favorably to the petitioners on the narrower of issue of due process, so let me proceed to address myself to that problem.

I say to Your Honors first quickly and then I hope to demonstrate it, that there is no substantive base, there is no support in any real evil, or to borrow a phrase from one of the justices of this Court, there is no solid threat to any security in California warranting this legislation.

Felix Frankfurter:

Well I thought your second point was (Inaudible)

A. L. Wirin:

No Your Honor I must say --

Felix Frankfurter:

Then what is the narrow point?

A. L. Wirin:

Well the narrow point is that I'm arguing a due process point essentially as distinguished from the broader points of equal protection or even the broader point of religious liberty that I shall mention it, or even the broader point of freedom of speech.

I thought that due process is a comparatively narrow approach before this Court.

May I proceed Your Honor to develop it?

Felix Frankfurter:


A. L. Wirin:

I intent to Your Honor, but -- I intend to.

Felix Frankfurter:


A. L. Wirin:

I intend to -- I hope that my argument before it is concluded will impress Your Honor as a narrow nonetheless, so I shall proceed.

I suggest to Your Honor that there is no showing in this record and that no claim can be made by the respondent of any solid threat to the security of the nation or to security of California, which would support this kind of legislation.

The first question to ask is, what is the purpose of the legislation and here I shall advert to the arguments for the constitutional amendment and we shall see to it at these are filed within 24 or more hours from now in sufficient quantities for the justices of the Court, in urging the support of a proposal which became the constitutional amendment, it was urged, there is no valid reason why such exemptions should be allowed communists and the like.

So far as the voters of California was concerned, this -- the constitutional amendment was designed to deal with the problem of communists and the like.

This contention or this position is supported by the majority of the court below which in the record at page 52 explained this legislation and these provisions and said this was California's, and I quote "Endeavor to protect itself from subversive infiltration."