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U.S. Court of Appeals to Rule on Maryland Cult Task Force PDF Print E-mail

 

U.S. Court of Appeals to Rule on Maryland Cult Task Force

by Alex Colvin

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering the case International Coalition for Religious Freedom et. al. versus Maryland et. al. ICRF and a number of Maryland citizens filed this suit in August of 1999 charging that the activities of the Maryland Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions violated the rights of religious freedom, speech and association by creating an environment of fear, discrimination and intolerance on Maryland campuses.

The federal district court to which the case was originally assigned dismissed the suit on the grounds that the case was moot because the task force had already issued its report. ICRF appealed, arguing that the existence of the report continues to threaten religious freedom for members of new religions and that personnel in the Maryland System have begun to implement discriminatory and unconstitutional policies pursuant to the activities of the task force and its report.

In its 1998 session, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution 22 establishing a task force to study alleged activities of "dangerous cults" on the campuses of the University of Maryland System. The task force began public hearings on May 25, 1999 at the Chancellor’s Office of the University of Maryland System and then held several meetings at various campuses around the state and in Annapolis. The task force received a wide array of testimony from anticult activists, proponents of religious freedom, members of new religious movements, parents, and scholars. On August 9, 1999, the task force concluded testimony and began discussions leading to preparation of its report. The task force held its final meeting on September 15, 1999 and submitted its report along with an executive summary to the legislature and the Governor of Maryland.

Neither the Maryland legislature nor the task force ever defined what they meant by the term "cult." From the outset of the hearings, critics pointed out that the word "cult" has several different meanings, but was generally used to refer to religious groups. William Taft Stuart, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, testified that many scholars are choosing to use terms such as "new religious movements," "alternative religions," or "minority religions" in place of the word "cult." After receiving advice from the Attorney General’s office, task force chairman, William Wood, recommended that the task force amend its mission statement to study "groups that cause problems."

The task force had already heard extensive testimony from "former cult members" and "anticult experts" such as Ron Loomis from the American Family Association. However, following the task force’s redefinition of its mission, several prominent authorities on new religious movements were prohibited from addressing issues concerning some of the very groups that had previously been criticized—on the grounds that the task force was not discussing religion and had agreed not to talk about "cults." For instance, Chairman Wood refused to accept several articles by Dr. James Richardson, a leading scholar in sociology of religion and law, because the titles of his papers included the word "religion," even though the content of the papers dealt with some of the groups that had been discussed in the task force.

Furthermore, at the same time that the task force was taking this stance in its public hearings, it was also circulating a questionnaire on letterhead bearing the heading "Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities" throughout the Maryland University System. The questionnaire was sent to all counselors, residential assistants, faculty, and chaplains requesting their input. Many of the respondents replied with accounts of activities by religious groups on their campuses and these accounts were accepted into the record.

ICRF also was concerned that the composition of the task force was heavily biased. Two of the task force members, Franz Wilson and Patricia Rausch, were named to the task force as "parents of cult members." Mr. Wilson was the chair of the Subcommittee on Outside Resources, which was responsible for inviting people to testify before the task force. In this capacity, he invited "anti-cult experts" from organizations that are notorious for prejudice against minority religious groups. Such experts were allowed up to an hour to attack minority religions. People from groups that were attacked by these "experts" who came to speak in defense of their faith were confined to speaking in "open forums" with their time generally limited to about five minutes.

The task force excited a considerable amount of interest and comment throughout the academic world. The Chronicle of Higher Education has maintained a colloquy on their website (www.chronicle.com/colloquy/99/cults/re.htm) since August of 1999. Dr. Jeffrey K. Hadden of the University of Virginia has also collected more than seventy documents and written on the task force on his website on new religious movements (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/cultsect/mdtaskforce.htm). ICRF maintains a page with background information and documents on the task force on its website at (http://www.religiousfreedom.com/tskfrce/tfrcindex.htm).