Why a Small Church in Los Angeles is Leading the Legal Fight Against Government Surveillance

When I first met Reverend Rick Hoyt he said, "You don't have to call me Reverend - just Rick is fine."

The bespectacled and youthful pastor sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, certainly didn't look like a conventional "man-of-God." In fact, the Unitarian Universalist church to which Rick belongs is known for defying Christian theological convention. And, Rick's home at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles also has a history of defying political convention.

The church, according to Hoyt, has been a "fierce advocate for personal liberties." Even before Edward Snowden became a house-hold name, the First Unitarian Church of LA became a named plaintiff in a major lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA) over privacy violations.

Nineteen organizations have joined Hoyt's church in an unusual coalition that includes the Marijuana legalization group, NORML, and gun rights groups like the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees.

Hoyt admits that some of the groups are those his church doesn't normally work with and "aren't necessarily politically sympathetic with." But the right to personal privacy is a libertarian position deeply held by both ends of the political spectrum.

The coalition also includes Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, Free Press, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And while they may have some strange bedfellows particularly with the gun-rights organizations, the groups have found common ground in what they see as an attack by the US government and the NSA on Americans' First Amendment Right to Assemble.

The lawsuit is based on the NSA's indiscriminate telephone tapping program, about which suspicions have existed long before recent leaks of classified documents. Rev. Hoyt fears that NSA surveillance aimed at political groups impacts the right of people to freely assemble in those groups: "People need to feel that they have the freedom to join an organization ...and use the power of a group to amplify their voices."

His suspicion that the government is likely spying on his church is not unfounded. Hoyt cited the church's long arc of political activism, going as far back as the late 1800s when people like Caroline Severence, the prominent suffragist, joined the Unitarian Church. Unitarians also historically embraced abolitionism and later the Civil Rights and modern feminist movements.

More relevant to today's suit is the position the church took in the 1950s against the McCarthy-era anti-communist witch hunts, coming to the defense of the black-listed "Hollywood Ten" writers and actors in Los Angeles.

That stance provoked a very real FBI surveillance program against the church. Plainclothes agents attended worship services and caused anxiety among the congregation. Hoyt says the church responded at the time by refusing to publish its membership directory in order to protect its congregants, and told me, "[w]e're very familiar with the kind of chilling effect that these government actions can have on the individual person's right to come together into churches and social and political groups to do the kind of work that we want to do as people of faith."

Reverend Rick Hoyt went further, saying it was incumbent on his church to take a strong position against government abuse of power: "[i]t is one of the foundational principles of our faith that individuals have power to affect change in the world and that we have a responsibility as people of faith to bring our values into the public sphere and to make change in this world."

Watch my recent and complete interview with Rev. Hoyt:

The church remains politically active today strongly engaged in issues like marriage equality. Mass government surveillance, argues Hoyt, could scare off potential congregants from politically active organizations like the First Unitarian Church. And that, according to him and his fellow plaintiffs, violates the First Amendment.

The lawsuit - First Unitarian Church Vs. The NSA - was filed in mid-July of this year by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group that has been around for almost as long as the internet. After months of laying the groundwork for the suit, the EFF's timing could not have been better, with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's explosive revelations coincidentally sparking a heated global debate over the US government's unchecked powers.

Snowden's documents, doggedly disseminated almost daily by Glenn Greenwald and his fellow reporters at the Guardian newspaper of London, have only served to strengthen the suit. Hoyt says the revelations underscore some of the very arguments made by the plaintiffs and now, thanks to Snowden, "we actually have some factual basis to say 'yes, what we suspected is actually happening.'"

While he hesitated to call Edward Snowden a "patriot," the Unitarian pastor credits Snowden with "speeding up the process," and helping to "ignite this public discussion." He added, "[a]nybody whose actions bring this kind of program to light and encourages national discussion is to be applauded."

When I asked Reverend Rick Hoyt if he mentioned the lawsuit during his church service, his eyes lit up and he enthused, "Oh yes, I have! We've actually been very excited about the lawsuit!" He is hopeful that his church, which he says is a "small group," and "not a particularly powerful group," in attempting to defend against mass government surveillance, may now, thanks especially to Snowden's revelations, stand a decent chance of preserving the First Amendment and people's right to privacy.

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