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L.A. Church Sues NSA Over Surveillance Program

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Photo: ashley rose/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed today challenging the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' communication records as part of a much-debated anti-terrorism surveillance program.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, was filed on behalf of more than a dozen organizations, including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, and the Council on American Islamic Relations-California, which is based in Anaheim.

"The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues," the Rev. Rick Hoyt of First Unitarian Church told The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. "We joined this lawsuit to stop the illegal surveillance of our members and the people we serve. This spying makes people afraid to belong to our church community."

The church has a history of political activism, including a 1950s lawsuit challenging a loyalty oath required by the state for organizations to be recognized as nonprofits.

The Associational Tracking Program collection of phone records "is done without probable cause of reasonable suspicion to believe that plaintiffs, their members or their staffs have committed or are about to commit any crime or engage in any international terrorist activity," according to the lawsuit, which is spearheaded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It also argues that the program has left advocacy efforts by various groups "chilled" and is carried out "without lawful authorization, probable cause and/or individualized suspicion."

"It is done in violation of statutory and constitutional limitations and in excess of statutory and constitutional authority," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks that the program be found in violation of the First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and that an injunction be issued barring the government from continuing to monitor citizens' phone records. It also requests an order for the "return and destruction of their telephone communications information," along with unspecified damages.

NSA officials and even President Barack Obama have defended the surveillance program, insisting that it has helped thwart terrorist plots. Obama has insisted that Americans' phone calls are not being tapped.

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama said last month. "That's not what this program is about. ... What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers, durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content."

Obama said intelligence officials can use the information collected to develop potential leads on those who may be planning terrorist activities.

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