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Dean M. Kelley, 1926-1997

New York, April 27, 2009 -- The Rev. Dean M. Kelley, whose five-volume The Law of Church and State in America has been put online by the First Amendment Center, was one of the National Council of Churches' premier staff persons in First Amendment issues of church-state separation and religious liberty.

He was the NCC's Executive for Religious Liberty from 1960-1990, and thereafter in retirement the NCC Counselor on Religious Liberty until his death in 1997 following a 15-month battle with cancer.

Born June 1, 1926, in Cheyenne, Wyo., Kelley was a United Methodist pastor who defended the religious freedom of groups no matter how mainline or controversial. He vehemently opposed "deprogramming," a practice in which converts to unpopular religious views were often kidnapped and coerced to change their minds.

Kelley held the conviction that the threat to the religious freedom of anyone was a threat to all. This led him to go to bat for the First Amendment rights of groups as diverse as the Unification  Church, Taos Pueblo Indians, Church of Scientology, Old Order Amish, Christian Scientists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims and mainline Protestants.

He wrote and filed scores of amicus curiae briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, offered testimony to Congressional bodies, wrote dozens of articles and several books, gave hundreds of interviews and spoke widely on church-state issues across North America and Europe. He also wrote hymns and poetry.

News media turned often to Kelley for expert views on controversial religious subjects, especially when the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, was prosecuted by the Federal Government. Moon was unpopular among American Christians but Kelley defended Moon's right to act out his faith in ways he saw fit. Kelley was widely admired by journalists, one of whom described his longish hair and wire-rimmed glasses as "Pickwickian."

Kelley's 1977 book, Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes, was for years the "textbook" on the issue, said the Rev. Oliver Thomas, who was the NCC's Council for Religious Liberty when Kelley died in 1997. "Dean, more than any one person in the United States, is responsible for religious organizations retaining their tax-exempt status," Thomas said at the time.

In retirement, Kelley was deeply concerned about the U.S. persecution of unpopular religious movements such as Davkid Koresh's Branch Davidians, an Adventist sect near Waco, Tex. He wrote two articles and gave face-to-face interviews criticizing the U.S. government's role in the deaths of more than 90 members of the sect when their compound was surrounded by FBI agents.

"The only time I saw dean cry was when he was reporting to us about those interviews," said the Rev. N.J. "Skip" L'Heureux, Jr., Executive Director of the Queens, N.Y., Federation of Churches. "He concluded that a strong sense of faith bound those people together, and grieved the Federal Government's cavalier, vicious treatment of them."

Kelley also opposed efforts to amend the First Amendment to permit prayer in public schools and was a key force in the passage of the Equal Access Act, which protects the rights of students in public schools to form religious clubs.

He was instrumental in shaping church-state safeguards in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. He was co-director with Father Charles Whelan, of a three-year Project on Church, State and Taxation funded by the Lilly Endowment, and edited the November 1979 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on "The Uneasy Boundary: Church and State."

"Dean Kelley was a towering figure in American religion," said the Rev. James Dunn, head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs when Kelley died in 1997. "He was passionately committed to real religious freedom for everyone. As a good Methodist he knew that religion of the heart was all that counted with God and he fought and thought with all his might to guarantee that every individual had freedom of conscience."


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) , pjenks@ncccusa.org

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