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A life’s work finds online home

A UMNS Report
By Elizabeth Guye*
June 9, 2009

The Rev. Dean Kelley labored for 20 years producing a five-volume manuscript that represented the accumulated wisdom of a life’s work in the field of religious liberty.

The United Methodist pastor and defender of religious freedom would never see it in print. He died of cancer in 1997, his masterwork unpublished.

But not forgotten.

Twelve years after his death, the First Amendment Center is making available online all five volumes of “The Law of Church and State in America.”


The Rev. Dean Kelley

In some 2,000 pages, Kelley takes readers through the legal complexities of the relationship between government and religion that he navigated for 30 years from 1960 to 1990 as executive for religious liberty for the National Council of Churches. Many of the issues he writes about – state funding for faith-based programs, religious symbols on public property, faith in the classroom – continue to be a vital part of the public debate.

In life, those who knew him say Kelley was a fierce defender of the rights of even the most unpopular religious groups from the Church of Scientology to the Branch Davidians. That his writings now live on would give a sense of satisfaction even to this unassuming man who one friend described as a “Pickwickian man who had a monk-like haircut with a bald spot.”

“Kelley would be quietly proud, since he was a very humble man, and maybe a little surprised, but definitely honored that people still care about his works today,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former top staff executive of the church council.

From Wyoming to New York

Kelley was born June 1, 1926, in Cheyenne, Wyo. He graduated from Denver University with a degree in theology and went on to become a United Methodist pastor. He served churches in Oak Creek, Colo., and then in New York at East Meadow, West Hampton Beach and New York City for 13 years before joining the National Council of Churches.

Throughout his career, Kelley defended the right of free practice of religion while opposing government intervention in religious affairs. So he opposed efforts to permit prayer in public schools while supporting the rights of students to form religious clubs.

He was an early and strong opponent of deprogramming, and risked the disapproval of mainstream churches in defending the rights of individuals from Christian Scientists to Scientologists to Muslims to freely practice their faith.

Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, who served at the church council with Kelley and now works as a communications officer for Church World Services' Immigration and Refugee Program, said Kelley would not back away from controversy in defending the Church of Scientology, even though many people working with him were unhappy about his stand. Kelley “firmly believed” that every religious group deserved all its rights, and he worked very hard to make sure all groups received those rights, Fouke-Mpoyo said.

She remembered Kelley as intellectual and serious while still being approachable. But he did not tolerate intellectual laziness.

“When you went to talk to him about something, you had better (have) done some research because he expected you to know the facts,” she said.

Kelley was a straightforward man and did not sweet talk anyone, which made people trust Kelley’s opinion, said Campbell, now director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution in New York.

On the subject of church-state relations, Campbell said, Kelley “was a real national treasure.”

But his two-decade effort to pass along much of his wisdom fell just short when Kelley lost a 15-month battle to cancer on May 11, 1997, at age 70. At the time of his death, the manuscript was scheduled to be published by Greenwood Press in the fall of 1997. However, the publishing group felt that it should be updated with current legal matters, which became too big of a job for others to complete. The work was canceled.

The Good Samaritan

But Kelley’s friends and supporters never let it drop. A manuscript committee got the work ready for publication and the First Amendment Center put it online.

Dean Kelley’s mind was too valuable to waste, they decided.

“This monumental work on the law of church and state reflects both his deep knowledge of the issues and his extraordinary ability to provide a lively, informed account of case law central to understanding the relationship between religion and government in America,” said Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center.

The work deals with broad theme such as the self-governing interests of religious bodies, the outreach activities of religious bodies, the freedom to practice faith throughout the world and the state’s efforts to sponsor, protect or provide shelter for religion.

Reflections on religious history and practices are included throughout the studies of case law. For example, in a chapter on serving human needs, Kelley cited the biblical account of the Good Samaritan as an example of how churches can do the right thing for others.

It is when they do not follow the example of human kindness in dealing with others that churches and other religious groups often get into legal trouble, according to Kelley.

When Kelley died in 1997, the Rev. James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs said, “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.”

Now, with the publication of “The Law of Church and State in America,” Kelley’s legacy continues to bear fruit. It’s a development that the Rev. Ken Bedell, a United Methodist pastor and friend of Kelley’s, is glad to see.

“I think it’s exciting,” Bedell said. “So people will know what he really meant and tried to establish instead of just hearing the titles of his works and assuming what he was fighting for.”

*Guye is a United Methodist News Service news writing intern based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Elizabeth Guye, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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