Unitarian church, gun owners file suit to end NSA phone spying

A Unitarian church, a gun rights group and a host of other activist organizations on Tuesday sued to end the National Security Agency's massive phone record collection program.

Unlike other lawsuits, which have focused on privacy rights, Tuesday's suit argues that the spying violates the constitutional right to free association.

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

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After leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA acknowledged that it collects records on millions of phone calls within the United States. The data includes the time and duration of calls, as well as the phone numbers involved, but not the content of the conversations. The NSA says it only "queries" the database a limited number of times for specific national security reasons.  

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Northern California, argues that the phone records reveal personal information about the political and religious groups that people belong to and chills free association. 

Gene Hoffman, chairman of the Calguns Foundation, said that people in California are "understandably paranoid" about being identified as gun owners.

"Californians on the whole are not real fond of people who own firearms," he said on a conference call with reporters.

The suit claims that the NSA spying violates "the right to communicate anonymously, the right to associate privately, and the right to engage in political advocacy free from government interference." 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, TechFreedom, the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Council on American-Islamic Relations also joined the lawsuit. 

Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the lawsuit has a better chance than previous attempts to block government spying. She noted that the courts threw out her group's previous lawsuits because they were unable to prove whether they had actually been spied on.

But now, the NSA has acknowledged collecting records on all phone calls within the United States.

"The government is not going to be able to raise those same secrecy arguments now," she said. "They have admitted the core of what they are doing."

She said she hopes the suit raises public awareness about how the vast surveillance programs affect free-speech rights.

"When the government gets access to the phone records of political and activist organizations and their members, it knows who is talking to whom, when, for how long and how often," she said. "People are simply less likely to associate with organizations when they know the government is watching."