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Cult Group Controversies:
Maryland Cult Task Force
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Will Maryland Lead U.S. into European-Style "Sectophobia"?*
Dan Fefferman
While the US is generally thought of as having an excellent record with regard to religious freedom, recent developments in the state of Maryland set an ominous precedent indicating that the US may be following Europe’s lead toward repressive measures and "Sectophobia."
The case in point is an act of the Maryland state legislature last year to create a "Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Educational Institutions." The Task Force, which is currently in formation, is required to report its findings and recommendations to the Governor of Maryland no later that September 30 of this year.
The resolution creating the Task Force stated that "college students who become involved with cults undergo personality changes, suffer academically and financially, are alienated from their families and friends, and are robbed of the very things universities were designed to encourage…" It does not, however, define the term "cult" or name any specific "cults."
Opponents fear the Task Force will be used to stifle the freedom of speech and expression of adherents to new and small religions, the very groups that most require protection. They point out that in Europe, government anti-"sect" commissions have named such groups as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic charismatic groups and even the YWCA as "dangerous."
U.S. anti-cultists have claimed the creation of the Maryland Task Force as a triumph that should be duplicated in states throughout the nation. Promotional literature for a "CULTINFO" conference in Stamford Connecticut in January giddily declared: "This encouraging development will energize you and show how you can use this tool in your state legislature."
Results of anti-"sect" commissions in Europe have been criticized for creating an atmosphere similar to the McCarthyist red scare in the 1950s. In Germany, members of the Church of Scientology have been banned from membership in the major political parties. In France, a Unification Church center was bombed shortly after the government listed the church among 72 dangerous "sects." Members of minority religions in Europe have been denied employment and housing, had schools closed, have been passed over for employment, and even had bank accounts closed for no other reason than their faith.
The commissions have also been criticized for being wasteful. After months of investigation and substantial expenditures of money, a German official panel mandated to study "sects and psychogroups" concluded: "No generalized statements on the whole spectrum of new religious and ideological groups and psychogroups can be made. As a consequence of this fact, the Commission has decided to no longer use the term 'sect.'
The Maryland Task Force demonstrates how a tiny force of misguided or intolerant individuals fearful about "cults" can bend a state legislature's will by presenting one sided arguments and taking advantage of crowded legislative calendars to push through its agenda.
Cult Group Controversies:
Maryland Cult Task Force
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Cult Wars in Maryland: An Introduction to the Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions*
Jeffrey K. Hadden** University of Virginia
Introduction Movements and Counter Movements History of Anti-Cult Movements Anti-Cult Activities in Maryland Why Maryland Now? Task Force Proceedings Reflections on the Task Force
During the 1998 legislative session, the House and Senate of the Maryland State Legislature passed a join resolution to create a Task Force to study the "effects of cult activities" on campuses in the state system of four year colleges and universities. The Task Force was not funded and hearings did not get underway until more than thirteen months later in May 1999. From the beginning, some observers saw the hearings as "much ado about nothing," while others viewed the outcome of these proceedings as having serious implications for the future of anti-cult movement activities both in the United States and Europe.
At the time of this writing, the public hearings of the Task Force are complete. The Task Force is now determining the nature of the report and recommendations they will write. The purpose of this essay is to provide an orientation and overview to the proceedings for those who are not familiar with the Maryland Cult Task Force. It also provides very brief background comments on the history of the anti-cult movement in America over the past three decades, and concludes with a brief analytical perspective.
This web site will be developing as complete an archive of the Task Force proceedings as is possible. Many of the witnesses before the Task Force presented written comments. Many of their presentations are now available online. We will be adding additional written presentations as quickly as we can get them processed. The proceedings of the Task Force have been recorded, but there are no plans for an official transcript. An unofficial transcript is presently being prepared and we hope to have at least some portions of that transcript on line within a few weeks.
Those who are familiar with the sociological literature on the movements and counter-movements, as well as the anti-cult movement in America, may wish to jump directly to the discussion of the Maryland case. You can also access the index of resources available on the Maryland Cult Task Force.
Movements and Counter-Movements in Sociological Literature
Social movements literature advises us that movements beget counter-movements more-or-less proportionate to the perceived threat of the movement. And, the greater the success of counter-movements in mobilizing opposition resources, the greater the amount of time and resources the proactive movements will need to invest to protect their movement interests.
The anti-cult movement in the U.S. early on pursued a strategy of litigation that compelled religious movements to invest resources to protect themselves in court. For all but the largest New Religious Movements, litigation was a threat both in terms of the allocation of leadership time and organizational financial resources.
The size of the anti-cult movement in America has never been very big, but they have skillfully employed litigation. And they have successfully courted mass media to promote their message that "cults in America" constitute and dangerous and pernicious force that threatens the lives of those who come into contact with them, and that "cults" undermine the fabric of a free society. The message of danger resonates with much of the general public because (a) there has long existed a latent distrust of marginal and new religious and (b) parents can be easily swayed by messages that their children are vulnerable to groups that have special powers to influence them.
A Brief History of the Anti-Cult Wars in the U.S.
The struggle between the new religious movements of the second half of the twentieth century and the anti-cult movement is well documented in several resources [insert short biblio]. We need only recall here that the anti-cult movement began with the high visibility of new religions during the latter phases of the youth counter-culture.
Parents distraught by their children joining religious movements early found a new group who called themselves deprogrammers. For a price, these entrepreneurs were willing to assist in returning wayward children to their parents. Together, parents and deprogrammers created an ideology that demonized religious movements, especially their leaders, and simultaneously legitimated forcible removal of young people from religious groups. A few who were successfully deprogrammed would find new careers in the expanding occupation of deprogramming, first as aids or apprentices before moving out on their own to become private entrepreneurs.
During much of the 1970s and 1980s the anti-cult movement pursued two strategies against religious movements: (1) aggressive removal and deprogramming of members from religious groups and (2) litigation against new religions, brought by the anti-cult movement on behalf of former members who claimed various kinds of abuse. The most important alleged abuse was that new religions used powerful techniques called "brainwashing" to get young recruits to act contrary to their own will and, thus, effectively becoming prisoners to the "cult."
After a few cases charging kidnapping sent deprogrammers to jail for their roles in forcibly removing adult members from groups, anti-cultists sought to pass legislation that would grant parents conservatorships over their adult children. If this could be achieved, deprogramming could take place under the protection of the law. Having failed to get protective legislation in a single state, the language characterizing their activity was changed from deprogramming to "exit counseling." And, greater caution was taken to avoid the more vulgar tactics of forcible removal.
The strategy of suing new religious groups for exercising "mind control" over members continued virtually unabated until the end of the 1980s. At that point, two leading expert witnesses for the anti-cultists sought to testify that Steven Fishman, who was on trial for grand larceny, had acted under the influence of mind control. The Church of Scientology was still exercising the alleged mind control some years after he had terminated his association with the group. In a landmark decision in 1990, Judge D. Lowell Jensen in a U.S. Federal District Court in Northern California ruled that the two experts could not offer testimony on brainwashing or mind control because their views did not represent the consensual view of the scientific community.
USA v Fishman (1990) effectively put an end to litigation against religious movements on the grounds that they had abused former members by the use of mind control. But this chapter of the anti-cult movement was not finally put to rest until after the two expert witnesses were twice unsuccessful in suits brought against the organizations and individual scholars they claimed were responsible for putting an end to their careers as expert witnesses on this issue.
Another landmark decision occurred in 1995 in Seattle involving an unsuccessful involuntary deprogramming attempt of Jason Scott, a member of a Pentecostal group. The suit was brought against the deprogrammers and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the leading anti-cult organization in the U.S. On November 29, Federal Judge Coughernour awarded a judgment of $4.8 million to Scott for violation of his civil rights. The judge. s decision notes that "CAN knowingly participated in the decision to abduct Mr. Scott& [and]& the evidence conclusively established that the decision was motivated by discriminatory animus toward his religious affiliation." This decision was upheld in a U.S. Court of Appeal (04/08/99), as was an appeal for a bankruptcy court sale of the name and of the assets of the Cult Awareness Network.
A member of the Church of Scientology purchased the name Cult Awareness Network, and the organization. s assets. The organization now operates under the aegis of an organization called Foundation for Religious Freedom. The new CAN operates a hotline and information service which now focuses on the religious and civil rights of members of marginal religious groups.
Some scholars and media observers see these and other developments of the 1990s as evidence that anti-cult organizations have been serious damaged and that they probably cannot long survive. Before anyone writes an obituary for the collective anti-cult efforts in the U.S., it might be well to recall that sage wisdom of Peter Berger in his celebrated little volume, Invitation to Sociology. "It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this. things are not what they seem." With this advice, it might be wise to examine more carefully the strategies that the anti-cult movement is now being pursued in the U.S.
With this background as prologue, I turn to an examination of the activities of the anti-cult movement in the state of Maryland as exemplar of new strategies and as a test case of considerable consequence in the United States.
Anti-cult Activities in Maryland
During the 1980s, the legislature of the State of Maryland exhibited caution in the face of repeated efforts to use the legislature to attack religious minorities. In 1980 the House of Delegates defeated a resolution that would have created legislative a panel to "study, investigate, and report to the Maryland legislature on the recruitment and membership practices of religious cults and the possible need for remedial legislation." The resolution was reintroduced in 1981 with the word "religious" deleted.
In 1982 a bill was introduced that would have allowed the appointment of a "special guardian" of a person for 45 days. This appeared to be a "thinly disguised attempt at State-sanctioned deprogramming" (Fefferman). Then, in 1988 another joint resolution was introduced to create a "Cult Awareness Week" for the expressed purpose of informing citizens of the danger of "cults."
Delegate, later Senator Ida G. Ruben, introduced all four of these initiatives. The last of these resolutions was introduced in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Cult Awareness Network in Washington D.C. The Maryland legislative bodies rejected each of these initiatives.
After a decade without any legislative initiatives, the issue reappeared in 1998 before the House of Delegates. The focus shifted to alleged problems on college campuses. Sponsors of the resolution were six members of the legislative Black Caucus. The resolution alleges that "college students are particularly vulnerable to cult recruitment," that "students who become involved with cults undergo personality changes, suffer academically and financially, are alienated from their families and friends, and are robbed of the very things universities were designed to encourage." The resolution further states that while some college administrators have recognized the problem of cults on campus and "taken action to address the situation& many others have failed to recognize the threat& [and]& deal with the problem."
House Joint Resolution 22, entitled "Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions" (Appendix I) was introduced on first reading before the House Rule Committee on February 19, 1998.
A single day of hearings on House Joint Resolution 22 occurred on March 5, 1998. Delegate C. Anthony Muse, who spearheaded the resolution, chaired the hearing. There were a total of ten witnesses; nine spoke in favor of the resolution, one in opposition. Those speaking in favor of the resolution included a mathematics professor and anti-cult activist, three campus clergy who were also anti-cult activists on Maryland campuses, three parents and two former members.
The one person speaking against the resolution was William Taft Stuart, a professor of anthropology at the UM, College Park. Stuart specializes in the study of religious movements. His presence was apparently fortuitous. Stuart received the invitation to appear before the hearings because a former student of his, and then an assistant to Delegate Muse, was assigned the task of rounding up witnesses. Stuart reports that Delegate Muse appeared to be miffed by his presence at the proceedings (interview, 08/03/99).
The final two-page resolution uses the word "cult" 16 times and is explicitly, or contextually, pejorative in every occasion. HJR22 passed on the third reading in the House on March 28 with 93% favoring. The resolution was introduced in a Senate committee on March 30, and was passed barely two weeks later by a vote of 38-7. Governor Parris Glendening signed the joint resolution on May 21.
Calling for a Task Force, the resolution made no provisions to staff or fund activities of these proceedings. Without funding, administrative officials of the four-year colleges and universities in Maryland proceeded to informally explore the extent to which the focus of the resolution was a problem on campuses. The conclusion reached was that problems of "cults" on campus were minimal to non-existent at the Maryland State colleges and universities.
This was not satisfactory to those who had pushed for the Task Force. They pressed to move the Task Force into action, and on May 25, 1999--a full year after the Governor signed the joint resolution--the Task Force held its first meeting.
Why a Maryland Cult Task Force Now?
After a decade without any anti-cult resolutions or bills before the Maryland legislature, at a time when anti-cult activity in the U.S. appeared to be on the decline, why should the issue reappear? Several interrelated developments offer important clues.
First, while the Cult Awareness Network was being forced out of business, the American Family Foundation (AFF) and local groups have quietly pursued a strategy of taking their anti-cult message to college campuses across America. One resource they have used with some apparent effectiveness is a 30-minute videotape entitled Cults: Saying . No. Under Pressure. The videotape was produced by the International Cult Education Program and narrated by Charlton Heston. We have not information on how aggressively AFF has marketed this videotape, but it is present and used on Maryland campuses.
Second, according to a Washington Post article in late 1997, the Washington D.C. metropolitan area has been a target for pressing the need for "cult education." The article sites evidence of university sponsored anti-cult activities on three District of Columbia campuses (American University, George Washington University and Georgetown University) and the University of Maryland.
The focus of the article, however, was on the apparent inadequate efforts at the University of Maryland, College Park campus. The article claimed there had been many complaints from parents and students about aggressive cult activity on campus. The Post writers report that parents are complaining that "the university has long refused to acknowledge a cult problem on campus."
The number of complaining parents is not clear. The Post writers state that they talked with a half-dozen parents, but the rather lengthy article identifies only a single couple whose daughter had a rather brief involvement with the a high demand group know as the International Churches of Christ. The Post report, plus my own investigation of the situation, would suggest that the number of parents who have pressed the university to take action against "cults" is quite small.
A third factor which likely contributed to the legislature. s willingness to go along with a study task force was the presence of a very vocal mathematics professor at the University of Maryland who, according to the Post, "had been lobbying university officials for years to heighten student awareness of cults." This professor. s complaints are reported by several persons to be responsible for the university producing a brochure entitled . Friends. Are Everywhere: a Guide to Making Judgements About Groups. The message of this tract is simple, if chilling: students beware of those who would wish to befriend you, for they may be cult agents. This document was mailed to on-campus residents as early as the Fall of 1993. From at least the fall of 1997, incoming resident students have been exposed to the anti-cult videotape entitled "Cults: Saying . No. Under Pressure."
Having permitted a vocal anti-cultist faculty member to structure the content of student orientation materials, and to have a role in the training of resident counselors, the mathematics professor becomes the inside "whistle blower." The message he helped deliver to Annapolis as reflected in the language of the HJ22 Resolution is that some University administrators have "failed to recognize the threat," or "refused to deal with the problem."
The fourth factor that almost certainly contributed to the renewed interest of the legislature in passing an enabling resolution to inquire about "cults" is the fact that the resolution is aimed at alleged danger on campus. In spite of the fact that the issue of in loco parentis was largely resolved more than a generation ago in favor of maximum personal freedom for college students, the allegation of threat to young people on campus is alluring.
The evidence is clear that university administrators did respond to pressure to address the perceived threat of "cults" on campus, but the anti-cult activists continued to plead that the university had not be responsive. When the activists take the case of alleged danger to the legislature, with the added caveat that university administrators have not been sufficiently sensitive to the problem, the stage was set for the hard sell.
State legislatures did not want to place themselves in a position of being perceived as indifferent to the problem. By targeting youth that are purported to be in danger, the plea is one that most legislators would find hard to vote against. To vote against the resolution could make a legislator vulnerable to the charge that he or she is "soft on cults." Since the resolution carried no staff resources, it was unlikely that much would come of the work of the Task Force.
In this context, a vote for the resolution was likely viewed as a win, win vote. When HJR came before the Maryland Delegates for a third reading on March 23, 1998, they voted 117-9 for the resolution. On April 9, they voted by a margin of 110-15 to concur with Senate Amendments. The Maryland Senate then passed the Third Reading of the resolution by a vole to 38-7 on April 12, 1998.
Proceedings of the Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior High Education Institutions
The Task Force, members to be appointed by various means, would consist of sixteen (16) persons selected to represent various interested parties including the Maryland legislature, the universities, parents and students. Of particular interest is the fact that two of the four parents were designated to be persons who have a child who is currently, or has been a member of a "cult." William T. Wood, an attorney and member of the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland System, was appointed by Governor Glendening to chair the committee.
The first meeting of the Task Force occurred on May 25. Chairman Wood announced that the hearings would be organized as a legal proceeding before a court. The quasi-courtroom proceedings, with Wood sitting as the presiding judge, have fallen short of a trial where the accused having an opportunity to face their accusers.
All of the scheduled witnesses for the first day of hearings, except for anthropologist Stuart, addressed the issue of dangerous cults on campus. Thus, the hearings proceeded very much as the hearings before the Maryland legislative body considering the resolution. The only significant difference is that several religious movement groups in the Maryland/District of Columbia area were not aware of the legislative hearings were not present in the audience. Only Stuart. s presentation, which addressed the meaning of the concept cult, and the inherently prejudicial character of the concept as it was used in the resolution, provided a deviation from very one-sided hearings. In the "open forum" portion of the proceedings, members of various groups stepped forward to protest the one-sided selection of witnesses and to challenge the use of the word "cult."
The scheduled witness for the second meeting on June 7 were much more sympathetic to religious movements than those appearing before the first session. Witnesses included sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, National Science Foundation, a leading authority or religious movements, and Gary Pavela, a legal scholar from the University of Maryland.
In the "open forum" at least six members of three religious movement groups addressed the group. Their presentations explored many issues including religious freedom, the prejudicial presuppositions of the resolution, the influence of the anti-cult movement in structuring the proceedings, the one-sided testimony in the previous proceedings, and the open bias of some members sitting on the Task Force. Some of the testimony of some of the religious movement groups. members reflected the same kind of acrimony that characterized the anti-cultists presentations offered at the first meeting.
If Chairman Wood felt the second session "balanced the scales," it was not so perceived by the members of religious groups present. If nothing else, the representatives of religious movements had reason to feel that their presentations in "open forum" were not of equal stature to testimonies that were brought before the Task Force by an invited witness.
The first two meetings, thus, set the stage for continued acrimonious hearings. They were punctuated by vitriolic comments to witness by Task Force members, repeated lecturing of witnesses by the Chairman, apparently arbitrary and inconsistent rulings, and objections from both sides of the polarized gallery of witness that seemed clearly out of order.
The members of new religious who were faithful attendees of the proceedings felt like they were witnesses to proceedings completely stacked against them. They saw the proceedings like unto the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, or chapters out of Franz Kafka. s novel, The Trial. The fundamental Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom seemed far removed.
On the other hand, the anti-cultists, who were effectively responsible for the Task Force hearings in the first place, were frustrated with the proceeding that allowed testimony from "cultists" and academic scholars that they viewed as "cult apologists." The representatives of religious movement were obviously handmaidens of dangerous and deceptive organizations. The academic scholars, who present themselves as "experts," are surely naive, paid off by "cult" organizations, or perhaps both. In short, there are not many light moments in the proceedings.
James T. Richardson (University of Nevada, Reno) appeared as a witness on July 27. With degrees in sociology and law, almost 30 years of research on religious movements, and a long bibliography of highly respected publications, Richardson is clearly one of the most qualified scholars in the world to address the issues before the Task Force. Richardson delivered the text of his prepared remarks to Chairman Wood before meeting began. As Richardson outlined the topics he intended to address, Wood began to raise objections as to the relevance of some of the points in Richardson. s outline on the grounds that they were beyond the scope of the inquiry.
Wood subsequently rejected several articles authored by Richardson, that he wished to enter into the record of the proceedings, on the grounds of relevance. The process of accepting or rejecting Richardson. s articles had the appearance of being quite arbitrary, especially in light of the fact that some of the rejected articles presented research that contradicted presentations and papers that had earlier been entered into the record as part of the testimony of anti-cultists.
The seeming inconsistency of Mr. Wood. s rulings as to what would and would not be accepted as testimony, and as part of the record, became clearer to me as I learned more about how the proceedings had progressed. Here, I think, is what happened.
First, the Task Force quickly learned of the contentiousness of the concept "cult." The paper presented by William Stuart at the first meeting reviewed the prejudicial nature of the concept. Further, there were several members of religious movements present in the audience. Some were there with legal counsel. When the proceedings turned to an "open forum," the concept cult was protested vigorously by several members of religious movements.
Subsequently, Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, a member of the Task Force, advised the group that once a Task Force had been established, it had the liberty to rewrite its Mission Statement. So far as I can determine, the Task Force acted upon this advise from Grosfeld without consulting the Maryland Attorney Generals Office for an opinion. In a letter dated July 7, Chancellor Donald Langenberg communicated the Mission Statement of the Task Force to the Presidents of the colleges and universities of Maryland. The letter states that the Task Force adopted the Mission Statement on July 2. The statement reads as follows:
To determine the extent to which there are groups whose activities on the campuses of USM institutions, St. Mary. s College, or Morgan State University are intentionally or innocently, inappropriately:
causing demonstrable physical, psychological or emotional harm to students; interfering substantially with the educational mission of the institution; and/or violating institutional policies and/or federal, state or local laws
On the one hand, the Task Force. s writing its own Mission Statement appears to be a way to get rid of the objectionable word "cult." Chairman Wood insists that this is not what the Task Force is doing. In fact, he claims the expanded mission of the Task Force is to examine all groups that may "intentionally or innocently, inappropriately" causing harm, interfering with the educational mission, or violating any laws.
This may be the earnest intention of the Task Force, but there is no public evidence that they have sought witnesses who could advise them on any other kind of group other than religious groups. Without funding, and more time, it was impossible for the Task Force to take seriously the mission of investigating any and all groups that might engage in questionable behavior, cause harm to individuals, or interfere with the mission of university.
The record seems very clear that the materials the University of Maryland, College Park has used for the past several years as part of their training of resident assistants, and as orientation of new students, has been very substantially influenced by anti-cult organizations. For example, the videotape, Cults: Saying No Under Pressure, is the product of AFF. s International Cult Education Program. Similarly, the brochure entitled ". Friends. Are Everywhere: a Guide to Making Judgements About Groups" has a strong anti-cult message. Anti-cult bias is also obvious in tracks distributed by the campus ministries that have been active in advising the University of Maryland on the issue of "cult awareness education."
All of this literature seems consistent with an emerging strategy of anti-cult activists. The word
"group" is substituted for "cult" while retaining the adjectives "destructive" or "dangerous." The strategy serves the function of denying the intent of going after new religious groups. And, the general reference makes it possible to deny that any specific group is being singled out for attention. It also expands the meaning of the concept cult, even as the concept is downplayed.
The slough this gets the Task Force into is that any group (religious, political, educational, etc.) can potentially be labeled a cult. But insofar as care is taken to name specific groups, any allegation can be disclaimed as inapplicable to any specific group. Strong innuendoes can be planted with the knowledge that misstatements, exaggerations and lies are believable and that they will be believed. But in the presence of potential legal liability, the innuendoes can be denied. I recently received documented evidence that several leading anti-cultists have signed affidavits have denied that a particularly litigious "group" is a cult). This is disingenuous at the very least.
To put matters in a nutshell, it would appear that the Task Force has unwittingly played into the strategy of the anti-cultists. When the concept "cult" was revealed to have strong pejorative connotations in popular culture, the Task Force wrote the word "cult" out of their Mission Statement. Thus, they were investigating "groups." Then it became apparent that they were not investigating any group in particular, because that could open the door to some burden or proof that alleged activities do take place as a patterned policy of some group in question. The generalized group, with attached pejorative adjectives, is also a safety valve against potential liability.
So, if the Task Force is not investigating "cults," as the enabling legislation mandated they should do, nor investigating any group in particular, what then in the mission of the Task Force? Chairman Wood ruled that the Task Force was only interested in examining "behavior." But presumably behavior must somehow be linked to a specific group that encourages its members to do as a matter of belief or strategy. Failure to do this broadens the mission of the Task Force to investigate every activity that might cause physical, psychological or emotional harm; that might interfere with the educational mission of the school in question, or; violate institution policies, or federal, state or local laws.
Clearly this is not what the Task Force has done either. What, then, has been happening? How can we make sense of these proceedings that must more forward to some conclusion? In the final section of this introduction to the Maryland Task Force on Cults, I want to offer some reflections on what I believe to be critical issues that must be considered in bringing the work of the Task Force to conclusion.
Reflections on Concluding the Work of the Task Force and Beyond
Bringing the Task Force to a conclusion will not be an easy task. Chairman Wood. s efforts to defuse the controversial concept "cult," and simultaneously focus the mission in a way that would allow the investigation to come to a swift conclusion that would satisfy the interested parties would seem to have backfired. Instead, the proceedings have moved into a quagmire from which it will be extremely difficult to exit.
On the second day of hearings, Gary Pavela, JD, Director of Judicial Programs and Student Ethical Development at the University of Maryland testified to the Task Force regarding legal precedents that might impact their work. Later, University of Maryland Vice President William L. Thomas, Jr. sent Chairman Wood a two part article by Pavela entitled "Religiosity, Religious Diversity and . Cults. " with a cover letter noting that this article was "very instructive and relevant to the Task Force deliberations."
The testimony and writings of Pavela highlight many court cases that should serve as warnings against potential minefields that the Task Force ought to be aware of in their deliberations. There appear to be may avenues for challenging the appropriateness of the Task Force proceedings.
One important challenge would be Lukumi Babulu Aye v. Hialeah (1993). This case involved an ordinance by the city of Hialeah that prohibited animal sacrifice. It was the first test case before the Supreme Court that called for an interpretation of Smith v Oregon. In the Smith decision, Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion that held that there is nothing inherently wrong with restricting the activities of religious groups so long as religion or a specific religious group is not singled out for special action. The Supreme Court concluded that the Hialeah ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice was specifically written to prohibit persons practicing Santeria from sacrificing chickens as part of their religious ceremony. The Babulu Aye decision makes clear that the Free Exercise Clause, like the Establishment Clause does not tolerate even subtle departures from neutrality.
In creating a Task Force to investigate "cults," the clear intent of the framers of the resolution was to investigate religious "cults." Changing the Mission Statement of the Task Force to the investigation of "groups," and then to later declaring that the real mission is to look at "behavior," does not alter the primary business of the Task Force. From the beginning, the primary activity of the Task Force has been the investigation of religious groups, or the behavior of persons acting as agents of religious groups. There is no other appreciable evidence before the Task Force. Changing the words does not camouflage the fidelity of the Task Force to the joint resolution of the legislature.
Chairman Wood seems clearly aware of the pitfalls of writing a report that would be subject of legal challenge. At the same time, this may not be fully within his control. Many of the members of the Task Force have not had very good attendance records at the hearings. Whether they will show when it comes time to reach conclusions and make recommendations remains to be seen as doe the question of how they will vote.
The anti-cultists are looking for something they can claim as a victory. The recommendation for more comprehensive instruction about the dangers of "cults on campus" would be a victory. If this were achieved, the anti-cult organizations will both encourage and instruct their constituencies on how to lobby legislatures to create investigations in other states. On the other hand, if this is achieved, State of Maryland is at risk for serious legal challenge. Failing to achieve something they can spin as a victory, the anti-cultists will likely blame the Task Force for whitewashing the problem. They will likely blame the "cults" for exerting inappropriate influence, but the real villains will likely be the administrators on the Task Force who caved in to the "threats" of the "cults" and to the misleading of academic "experts."
If the anti-cults are unlikely to accept a clear and unequivocal defeat, the religious movement groups are unlikely to accept any decision that has potentially adverse impact on religious freedom. In fact, the event of Task Force served to raise the consciousness of several religious movement groups about what is already happening. The present orientation policies of the University of Maryland regarding the dangers of "cults" constitute potential grounds for challenging the violation of free exercise of religion. Introduction of further university-sanctioned programs that have the appearance of being aimed at certain kinds of religious groups would strengthen a potential case against the State. And likely increase that probability that legal challenge would be forthcoming.
At another level, the Task Force is potentially vulnerable to challenges of unfairness in the manner in which the hearings were conducted. While most would agree that Chairman Wood has tried to be fair and evenhanded with both sides of the controversy, the record may well show that he did not achieve this objective?
In the early part of the proceedings, Chairman Wood allowed a broad array of testimony from anti-cultists that would be considered unsubstantiated hearsay in a court of law. At the same time, he appeared to have exhibited less willingness in admitting evidence that challenged the hearsay arguments of anti-cultists. Ad hominem arguments went unchallenged by the members of the Task Force, and rebuttal was not allowed by other witnesses or by speakers in open session. Later in the hearings, the Chairman ruled that a considerable body of evidence presented by academic scholars was not relevant to the proceedings. In some instances, the evidence offered seriously contradicted testimony offered by anti-cultists.
The House Joint Resolution 22 calls for the Task Force to report its findings and recommendations to the Governor by not later than September 30, 1999. I will likely append additional thoughts to this introduction as the final work of the Task Force moves to conclusion. And, I will add additional concluding thoughts shortly after the Task Force report is submitted to Governor Glendening. In the meantime, I'll be adding addition testimony and documents submitted to the Task Force as quickly as we can get them up.
The Task Force held its last meeting on September 18 and, according the the Baltimore Sun submitted the Final Report was submitted to Governor Glendening on that same date.
The Baltimore Sun published a short article based on the Executive Summary of the report and comments by Chairman Wood. The article does not cover the findings except to note that "cult membership on campus is small," and that recruitment by all kinds of groups in commonplace on college campuses. The Sun ran no further stories. The Washington Post published a during the proceeding of the Task Force which relied heavily on the views of anti-cultists, but did not not run a story on the final report.
The Final Report of the Task Force is available on this site. My own reflections on the work of the Task Force and the longer term implications of these proceeding is also available under the title Task Force Mischief Exposed in the Commentary section of these Task Force archives.
| Contents | Introduction | Movements and Counter Movements | | History of Anti-Cult Movements | Anti-Cult Activities in Maryland | Why Maryland Now? | | Task Force Proceedings | Reflections on the Task Force |
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, August 5, 1999Chicago, IL.
** Jeffrey K. Hadden is Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. He founded the Religious Movements Page in conjunction with his courses in 1996. Mr. Hadden testified before the Task Force on July 24, 1999. His comments are available on the page.

Maryland Cult Task Force
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Anthropological Perspectives on the Nature and Problem of Cults on Campus: With Specific Reference to HJ 22
William Taft Stuart University of Maryland-College Park
Testimony Delivered 5 March 1998 [rev 22 June 1998] Before Appropriations Committee Maryland House of Delegates Hearing Annapolis, MD
I have been asked to present my views on the nature of so-called cults as well as, specifically on HJ 22. I am happy to do so. I shall, accordingly, address two topics in the brief time I have before you today, first, I discuss the nature and problem of so-called cults and, second, I offer some observations on HJ22, itself.
First, however, a word or two about myself. I am a social anthropologist whose primary research interest these days is in the study of religious sectarianism, especially New Religious Movements (NRMs).
I teach courses in New Religious Movements and related topics. I am currently studying . or have done so in the recent past . a variety of controversial NRMs such as "Messianic Jews", "Ahmadiyya Islam", and "Exorcism Activities of Protestant Churches".
I come to you not as an advocate or detractor of any specific movement or kind of them. Rather, I take it as the primary responsibility of the scholar to examine such movements carefully, and with appropriate dispassion. Emphatically, it is not the job of the anthropologist, as such, to evaluate as . good. or . bad. , but, rather, to examine as openly and even-handedly as possible, separating out rumor and vested interests from the demonstrable, verifiable facts.
Let me start with some observations on the nature and problem with so-called . cults.
New Religious Movements are as "American as Apple Pie". The very stuff of our freedoms of association and belief have been bred in the rich ground of religious diversity, new movement, novel customs, and often directive, charismatic leadership. The campus, in particular, is a common location for debate . frequently acrimonious . between the advocates of one or another movement and its detractors.
The term . cult. , itself, is a problematic one. Although the term can be . and usually is by social scientists . defined is a non-prejudicial manner, it is a fact that the term, as used by most of us, the public, is pejorative; it is a term one uses to describe the religion of someone else; virtually no group that I am aware of uses the term . self-referentially. , i.e., to speak of itself. Moreover, the term, when used in the colloquial manner of everyday speech, carries with it a condemning, negative assessment of the movement.
Most social scientists prefer a rather more neutral term, New Religious Movements. Frequently their strongly held beliefs and the commitment of their members excite contrary views by those who, not infrequently, cannot believe that . my children. could have voluntarily joined such movements. The fact is, however, that there is no convincing evidence . I say evidence, not unsupported rumor and vested interest testimony . that such movements are or have been . destructive. so as to restrict the voluntary joining and leaving of movements by potential recruits and members. Especially on campus there is no convincing, documentation . I say documentation . as to destructiveness of so-called cults being commonplace.
Now it should be pointed out that so-called cults are not limited to those that are primarily . religious. in nature, although most of those that appear to concern the drafters of HJ22 appear to me to be religious; there are also other . let. s call them . quasi-religious. . groups that are business-oriented [for example, Amway] or motivational movements [such as, EST or Forum, perhaps Transcendental Meditation]. Some groups appear to be a combination of two or more of the types [for instance, Scientology].
Why do people join? Do they come voluntarily or are they manipulated against their will or beyond their ability to resist the appeals from proselytizers? The scholarly evidence overwhelmingly supports the generalization that freedom in choosing to join and/or to leaving NRMs, especially the campus-based ones, is typical. Testimony to the contrary is typically anecdotal, second-hand, and usually otherwise unsupported. Even studies of such cult . experts. as Dr. Margaret Singer are not of a quality that inspire the confidence of scholars.
What is . thought reform. and how effective is it. The charge of (destructive) cults being involved in . thought reform. (or brainwashing as it used to be called) is asserted, but not documented, as psychologically a valid notion . the clinician Robert Jay Lifton. s influential book to the contrary. Rather, there is no evidence the any of the supposed emotional, psychological counterparts to physical brainwashing actually works. Despite many requests by scholars for verified studies demonstrating the implied cause-and-effect aspects of thought reform that are supposed to produce hapless recruits, there are to date no such scholarly studies. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion recently put the matter this way: "...there is insufficient research to permit informed, responsible scholars to reach consensus on the nature and effects of nonphysical coercion and control...[F]urther...one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control [described as brainwashing, mind control, thought reform.] In addition to critical review of existing knowledge further appropriately designed research is necessary to enable scholarly consensus about this issue."
But is such . thought reform. typical, especially of the behavior of so-called . cults. on campus? The only systematically collected and scientifically analyzed data from USA and abroad (for instance, Britain) has failed to show this. To the contrary, overwhelmingly most so-called cults lose most of their members, through voluntary, unhampered exits after only short periods of time. There is no evidence of the use of effective . coercion. as distinct from persuasion . which some people freely reject and others accept, at least for a time . on campuses that have been systematically and scientifically studied.
What is the reliability of the accounts of various sorts of anti-cultists? There are at least three sorts of very vocal critics of so-called cults and their reputed . destructive. and . coercive. practices:
- First, there are the former members who in a kind of counter-conversion turnabout, now recall often horrific details of their erstwhile membership; the reliability of such memories and testimony, however genuinely felt, is not to be taken at face-value; rather, the prevailing scholarly psychological assessments of such memories suggests that they are suspect.
- Second, there are the concerned relatives and friends, and so forth, of the members; these aggrieved persons cannot believe . my child. would have voluntarily joined such a movement and, in effect, turned his/her back on the family, and so forth. Again, however sincerely felt, the reliability of such testimony is questionable. Such anecdotes and assertions, that are heavily interpreted in anti-cult lingo, typically color statements of such parties.
- Third, there are the . experts. , . exit counselors. , . cult information counselors. ; these individuals, however nobly intentioned, are . stake-holders. in the anti-cult industry. Few social scientists are numbered among them. Rather they are typically a group of variably and often vaguely trained individuals; they are not usually scholars and have never, to my knowledge, submitted reliable, confirmed data.
I should note that a disproportionate number of the . experts. are ex-members of one or more of the movements, a number of them, for example, Steve Hassan . a former member of the Unification Church . having been . deprogrammed. into their new-found role as advocate and anti-cult expert.
I have presented the above rather unordered list of bulleted points to provide a basis for questioning the, presence, significance and severity of the problem of . destructive cults. on campuses. This is not to say that some coercive behavior does not occurs; but it needs to be demonstrated; all existing evidence suggests that the problem is overstated.
One final point, in cases where there may exist documented evidence of such coercion, I believe there are existing state and local laws as well as campus policies that already apply to instances, such as harassment, kidnaping, and other anti-social behavior, often ascribed to so-called (destructive) cults.
Let me briefly address a second topic, namely my reactions to some of the specifics of HJ 22.
I certainly do not wish to be misunderstood. Importantly, I do not question the intent of the HJ22. Certainly it is always appropriate for the legislature to examine matters, such as campus groups and activities.
I do question, however, the use of the term "cult" in the wording of the resolution as it now stands. Specifically, the term prejudges the issue and labels movements as . cults. ; rather, I would propose that the existence and danger of such movements on Maryland campuses needs to be investigated, not assumed.
The makeup of the proposed task force nowhere specifically identifies, as either members or as designated resources, reputable scholars and their scholarly studies of New Religious Movements . the so-called cults . whether benign or destructive.
The makeup of the proposed task force is weighted strongly in favor of the complainants and their spokespersons. There is insufficient evidence of any desire to undertake a reasoned, even-handed investigation.
There is no attention given to the presence of faculty on the task force or as resources to be consulted. Faculty of this state are concerned with academic freedom, fair and honest inquiry as well as in the well-being of their students. Campus faculty as well as administrators should be represented in the task force and/or in its investigations.
The several university campuses are unevenly represented on the proposed task force. Specifically, the College Park campus of the University of Maryland System shares one member with all other system schools, while the much smaller St. Mary. s College and Morgan State each have a representative.
I do not in any way mean to be taken as discouraging the proposed study. Certainly such an investigation is under the legitimate purview of the Legislature. Rather, I wish to propose that the charge and composition of the task force be more cautiously worded so as to make clear that an honest, non-biased committee will consider an appropriately broad selection of resource persons, including not only aggrieved persons . ex-members, their family and friends . and their pseudo-experts but a fair range of New Religious Movements and so-called cults on university campuses of the State as well as social scientists who have and are currently examining the phenomena of the nature of, the recruitment to and practices of so-called cults.
HJ 22 proposes an ambitious, and worthy undertaking. I believe it is essential, therefore, that the efforts of the proposed task force not be seen as listening only to the perspective of one or a few of the many constituencies concerned with the exercise of freedom of speech, belief and association on the campuses of the State of Maryland.
I thank you for your invitation to speak here today and to share with you some of my understanding of the nature of so-called cults and my observations on HJ22.