The suit, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, was filed July 16 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco. It focuses on the defense of free speech, privacy, and consumer rights. The suit came after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about NSA surveillance programs this spring, revealing a broad intelligence program to monitor Internet and telephone activity to identify terror plots.
First Unitarian is one of 19 plaintiffs. Others, in addition to the UUSC, include Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, People for the American Way, California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, and the Council on American Islamic Relations.
The Rev. Rick Hoyt, minister at First Unitarian, said EFF wanted a religious organization as lead plaintiff rather than a group that might be seen as politically partisan.
First Unitarian has a long history of social activism and the lawsuit is only the latest evidence of that. It also has a bit of history around government surveillance. Hoyt says there are stories from the 1950s that members declined to wear name tags and didn’t print a membership directory because they feared government infiltrators who were looking for Communists in the McCarthy era. One article says the church was known then as “The Little Red Church on the Hill” for its support of actors and others who were blacklisted in that era.
Following that, the congregation was involved in antiracism and civil rights efforts and in opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East. The FBI had the church under surveillance from the 1940s into the 1970s, according to some sources.
“We signed on to this suit because we have a general sense of concern, as the public does,” Hoyt said. “Given our history with surveillance and the fact that we have friends and members who are political refugees from Central America who were tortured by their governments, there is a sensitivity here. Who is watching us and what do they know?”
He said that currently the congregation’s social justice work has more of a neighborhood focus, working with many migrant groups in the inner city. The congregation, which had around 1,000 members in the fifties, now has 55. It translates its Sunday service into Spanish.
He added, “The goals of the case are to bring about less secrecy. And to find an appropriate balance. We understand the government has a role to keep the country safe, but it also has to protect our rights in the Constitution. Another goal that we have is for the information already collected to be destroyed.
“I’d like for people to know they can come here and add their voices to a community that is moving our country forward toward peace, justice, and greater liberty, and not fear that their individual political actions will create a danger for themselves.”
Daniel Sharpe, an attorney who has been a member of the congregation three and a half years, added, “We think we were chosen because we have a history of working for a more just society generally. The congregation is very supportive of our involvement in this. I’d say there is less concern about is it a good idea (for us to be involved) and more about what this lawsuit will really mean. How would winning this lawsuit effect change locally and nationally? That won’t be answered soon. We want this to bring about a healthy debate as to how much authority the government has to keep people safe.”
He added, “As an attorney I appreciate the concept of having First Church involved. So many times it’s easy for the media to focus the story on an individual [such as Snowden]. Having organizations like First Church as a named plaintiff takes the wind out of the sails of people who want to make it about a person. It makes it about what rights are being violated for people as a whole and what will be done about it.”
In a statement on its website, the UUSC explained why it also is a plaintiff in the suit:
“UUSC joins the EFF lawsuit on behalf of its members and staff, who bring people together to advance human rights and social justice through advocacy, education, and partnerships. The right to associate and to be free from unnecessary government monitoring . . . is something on which all involved can agree and work together to protect.”