President Trump’s vow to eliminate sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds has thrust this controversial topic into the national spotlight. As a growing number of municipalities launch legal challenges to the administration’s immigration crackdown, many media outlets have used the opportunity to provide a historical overview of what is broadly known as “the sanctuary movement.” Virtually all of these accounts overlook its true origin.
Berkeley passed the very first sanctuary resolution on November 8, 1971, in order to protect U.S. Navy sailors resisting the Vietnam War.
The philosophy behind this initiative, which forbade city employees from assisting in the enforcement of a federal law, not only inspired later generations of the sanctuary movement — but the actual language also was later borrowed by policymakers seeking to offer legal protections to refugees and immigrants. Although the concept of sanctuary as a safe haven is ancient, its modern application was first formulated in the Universal Lutheran Chapel, a church near UC Berkeley’s campus.
The pastor of this congregation, Gus Schultz, had served time in Santa Rita jail for organizing a protest at a local draft-board office, and one of its members had been arrested after Sunday services for burning his draft card. Another anti-war activist, Bob Fitch, approached Schultz around the time that the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier, was stationed at the Alameda Naval Base, prior to its redeployment to Vietnam. Fitch had previously been working with churches in San Diego to offer support to the growing number of seamen reluctant to participate in the war. By 1971, the U.S. military was relying more on a strategy of aerial bombardment as ground troops grew increasingly mutinous and exhausted.
Despite harsh repression, anti-war sailors aboard the Coral Sea had been organizing an SOS (Stop Our Ship) campaign, and Fitch saw this as the perfect opportunity to take what he had been doing in San Diego to the next level. Together, Schultz and Fitch devised a formal plan to offer churches as safe havens, where military personnel could access information about conscientious objection, meet with civilian activists, and obtain material support, including shelter. Although they networked with a handful of other East Bay congregations, the plan was never “to build an underground railroad for deserters,” according to Bennett Falk, who was involved with this early organizing and later served as president of Universal Lutheran Chapel.
Part of the media-savvy strategy was to lend the moral authority of religious organizations to an anti-war movement that was largely identified with hippie counterculture. However, Falk is adamant that his congregation’s decision to pass the resolution that helped launch the sanctuary movement was not a publicity stunt.
“It was important for us to establish that this wasn’t a merely symbolic action,” he said. “We knew that we were doing something with real consequences and we were ready to accept them.”
Under the leadership of the city’s first black mayor, Warren Widener, Berkeley followed the Universal Lutheran Chapel in passing a sanctuary resolution later that same week, the first municipal policy of its kind.
Only a few seamen from the USS Coral ended up sheltering in East Bay churches (until they were arrested), and the blowback from federal government was minimal, but “this relatively obscure episode … transformed both the politics of GI resistance, and the substance and meaning of sanctuary itself,” according to Professor Jennifer Ridgley, one of the only academics to research this history.
In the following years, various iterations of sanctuary city laws passed in hundreds of jurisdictions from coast to coast. Whether these laws withstand Trump’s threats will be determined in the next chapter of this ever-evolving movement.
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