Parents eye legal removal of children from cults
ANNAPOLIS (AP) - Emotion-filled stories of brainwashing and deprivation were recounted as a House committee heard testimony Wednesday an legislation to provide parents with the right to remove their children from religious cults. College students who identified themselves as former cult members - and parents who have tried unsuccessfully to remove their children from such groups - were among the more than 30 witnesses signed up for the hearing, which lasted late into the evening.
"The things I did and believed in were not rational," said Maggie Shivers, 28, a Yale student who identified herself as a former member of the Divine Light Mission.
We were told that if we left we would shatter into a million pieces," said Ms. Shivers, who broke down in tears as she tried to finish her testimony.
Other former cult members said they were the victims of deceptive recruitment and that they were threatened with death if they left.
Lined up in opposition to the hill were the American Civil Liberties Union and representatives from the Unification Church, Church of Scientology and The Way International.
The ACLU and the various groups who are the targets of the legislation have traditionally argued that such laws would violate the constitutional right of freedom of religion.
"My concern is only with actions, not beliefs," said Delegate Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the legislation. "Not all acts, even when done in the name of religion, are protected by our Constitution. Ritual human sacrifice is murder, not a sacrament."
"We should not allow the deliberate destruction of a person's free will to be protected by the first amendment while a good faith attempt to restore free will is being prohibited by the first amendment," she said.
Mrs. Ruben's legislation would allow the courts to appoint a special guardian for an adult or emancipated minor if it can be shown the person has undergone a "substantial behavior change" as a result of "systematic coercive persuasion."
A guardian could be appointed for only 45 days and only after a formal legal hearing. During the guardianship period, counseling would be given to restore the person's "capacity for independence."
Mrs. Ruben said she knew of no other such legislation on the books in other states.
The legislation is designed to provide a means for parents to remove their children from so called religious cults, at least temporarily, without facing criminal prosecution.
A Silver Spring couple was indicted by a grand jury is Denver last year on kidnapping and conspiracy charges in their unsuccessful bid to remove their daughter from the Divine Light Mission. The mother, Esther Dietz, was among the witnesses Wednesday.
"We acted out of a clear understanding of the destructive nature of cults," said Mrs Deitz. "Must we wait for another Jonestown, Guyana?"
An Episcopal priest who has helped families whose children have entered religious cults also testified for the bill, "To me the question is not just freedom of religion, but freedom from religion," said the Rev. Michael Rokas of Joppatown.
"There are many people who are not being given a free choice, but are being manipulated and coerced," he said.