Mar 16, 2014

Obituary: Rev. Dean Kelley, 70, Champion of Religious Freedom

New York Times    May 14, 1997

The Rev. Dean M. Kelley, a leading proponent of religious liberty who used his position at the National Council of Churches to speak out for the rights of religious groups large and small, died Sunday at his home in West Swanzey, N.H. He was 70.

The cause was cancer, the council said.

Kelley, a minister in the United Methodist Church, served as the council's executive for religious liberty for 30 years until 1990, during which he filed friend of the court briefs in many church-state cases, testified before congressional committees on  religious freedom issues and defended controversial groups like the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and others.

After his retirement, Kelley served as the council's counselor on religious liberty, at one point reviewing government documents on the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, by federal law-enforcement agents, which ended in a fire that killed about 80 members of the religious sect.

Kelley wrote that the FBI had been fundamentally mistaken about the Davidians, viewing them as hostages to a "cult leader" rather than as "a band of adults voluntarily and devotedly following a visionary."

The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the council's general secretary, said Kelley was a "purist" who believed that "unless you protect the liberty of the least respected among us," the religious freedom of the majority would ultimately be imperiled. "It was a passion for him," she said.

A firm believer in the separation of church and state, Kelley applauded the Senate defeat of a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools in March 1984. "There is no way that a public school can arrange for an oral, organized prayer that can be truly nonsectarian," he said.

But a month later, the council parted ways with some of the groups that had fought the amendment when it supported the Equal Access Act, which allowed student-led religious clubs to meet on school property outside of class time. In a letter to The New York Times, Kelley wrote that the council was "equally opposed to a misinterpretation of the First Amendment that suppresses the personal, voluntary, public expression by citizens of their religious faith, wherever they may be."

Kelley strongly opposed the efforts of "cult deprogrammers" enlisted by worried families to remove loved ones from intense religious sects.

In 1973, testifying at the trial of one such man, who had been charged with unlawful imprisonment for having tried to help a father "rescue" his son from a religious group, Kelley was asked whether he would not be disturbed if his own teen-age daughter had joined the group. "Certainly," he replied, but he added that to remove her forcibly would be "one of the most severe offenses against religious liberty that I can think of."

Later, when many communities were reacting to the suicide of more than 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978 by toughening enforcement of local laws against religious soliciting, Kelley said, "The trouble is, one man's cult is another man's religion."

Kelley was the author of two books that remain influential in religious circles. One, "Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes" (Harper and Row, 1977), is considered essential reading by people who support the tax exemptions of religious organizations, said James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

In the other, "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" (Harper and Row, 1972), Kelley discussed that trend by asserting that religion should explain "the meaning of life in ultimate terms," and that strictness and discipline were what attracted large numbers of people to churches. He noted with regret that he could find no evidence of a thriving, "high-demand religious movement devoted to justice, freedom, beauty, respect for others."
Dean Kelley was born June 1, 1926, in Cheyenne, Wyo. He graduated from Denver University in 1946 and from the Iliff School of Theology, where he received a master's degree in theology, in 1949.
He served churches in Colorado and New York, including Crawford Memorial United Methodist Church in the Bronx, until he joined the council in 1960.
At the council, Kelley organized special conferences on church-state relations, tax law and churches, and government intervention in religious affairs. Dr. Campbell said Kelley also served as the council's staff member on its evangelism committee.
Kelley married the former Maryon Hoyle on June 8, 1946, in Denver.  Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Lenore Wadsworth of West Swanzey, and a grandson.