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."
A student at the University of Maryland stated: "All freshmen at the U of M have to fill out a questionnaire in which they are asked about their religious preference. Will some of us who provided this information now be placed on a 'black list?' Is this Task Force going tell us which religions are 'OK' and which are 'cults?'
Civil libertarians agree. They point out that the Task Force is unconstitutional on its face. Identifying certain groups as "cults" singles them out as less than legitimate, and US courts have consistently held that this type of discrimination is not permissible under the Constitution's stricture that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" In addition, the guarantee of free exercise has been found in recent court cases (Employment division v. Smith) to mean that no particular religion or religions may be targeted in legislation.
The Task Force may also run counter to UN and other international covenants to which the US is a signatory. Recent UN deliberations have clarified that the right to freedom of religion applies not only to mainstream groups, but especially to smaller and new groups, the very ones targeted by the Maryland Task Force. According to an official statement of the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted in 1993:
"Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions... The Committee views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community."
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. The above-mentioned CULTINFO conference literature states that the Task Force resulted from the efforts of one woman, Sandra Stephon, who became distraught after her attempts failed to convince her son to leave the International Churches of Christ, which he joined while attending the University of Maryland. "Hear the story of how one angry mom took on the cults in the Maryland State Legislature and won!" the literature gushes, "Sandra has shown us a valuable weapon."
As for "taking on the cults in the Maryland State Legislature," when Maryland House Joint Resolution 22 was debated in the Appropriations Committee, the list of witnesses included nine proponents and one person who checked both "proponent" and "no position." Obviously, Mrs. Stephon and her allies in the Maryland legislature made no attempt to balance the debate. Both the House and Senate hearings on the resolution were stacked with "experts" from the anti-cult movement. No civil liberties groups testified, nor did representatives of the mainline religions who generally oppose such measures, nor any representatives of the groups who would be directly affected by the action.
Opponents of the resolution did not learn of its existence until it had already passed the lower house and was within two days of passing the Maryland Senate. By that senators were rushing to deal with hundreds of bills before the close of the session and few had even the slightest idea of the resolution's contents. When the resolution about to be voted on in the Senate, the clerk misread its title as a resolution to study "cultural activities" rather than "cult activities" on college campuses.
The Task Force will consist of a panel of educators, politicians, parents and students. Some positions remain unfilled as of this writing, but critics worry that the commission is already packed with appointees recommended by anti-"cultists" and that no civil libertarians or scholars of new religious movements have been named.
To express concern or request more information, write:
Governor of Maryland
Annapolis MD 21401-1991
Speaker of the House of Delegates
Del. Casper R. Taylor, Jr.
101 State House
Annapolis MD 21401-1991
President of the Senate
Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller
State House, H-107
Annapolis MD 21401-1991
Chancellor of the University of Maryland
Donald N. Langenberg
3300 Metzerott road
Adelphi, MD 20783