Cults and the Constitution

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The term "cult," currently used to designate a particular unpopular and feared new religious group often claiming a personal relationship between its leader and the Divinity, is not found explicitly in the original Constitution, the

first amendment's free exercise or establishment clause, or the fourteenth amendment ' s equal protection clause. Among the most prominent of these groups in recent times have been the Unification Church, the Worldwide Church of God, Inc., the Church of Scientology, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Cults, which have experienced varying degrees of discrimination and persecution by law enforcement officials, have consistently claimed that the Constitution does not sanction legal distinctions between them on the one hand and long-established and respected faiths on the other. They note, too, that historically most of the now well-established and fully respected faiths, including Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, have been subjected to governmental discrimination before achieving acceptability and equal treatment.

The claim to equal treatment was upheld in larson v. valente (1982) where the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a Minnesota statute, enforced against the Unification Church, that imposed special registration and reporting requirements upon religious groups that received more than half of their income from nonmembers, a provision the Court found to have been aimed at unpopular cults. This provision, the Court said, constituted precisely the sort of official denominational preference and discrimination forbidden by the establishment clause in the absence of a compelling interest not otherwise amenable to protection. Moreover, the statute also violated the clause by authorizing excessive governmental entanglement with and politicizing of religion.

Compelling registration is only one comparatively mild sanction imposed by government upon religious cults. Although that term had not yet become popular in 1944, when United States v. Ballard was decided by the Supreme Court, that decision ruled unconstitutional a mail fraud conviction of "I Am" members who obtained donations by representing that their leader was divinely appointed with supernatural powers to heal the incurably ill. To allow a jury to determine the truth or falsity of religious doctrines, the Court said, would render vulnerable representations concerning the miracles of the New Testament, the divinity of Christ, life after death, and the power of prayer. The First Amendment permits only a determination whether the defendants themselves actually believed that what they recounted was true, not whether it was actually true.

Other devices applied against cults include denial of tax exemption, dissolution of the corporate structure and seizure of assets (as in church of jesus christ of latter day saints v. united states, 1890), and prosecution for disturbance of the peace (as in cantwell v. connecticut, 1940, involving Jehovah's Witnesses).

Whatever may have been the Court's response in earlier times, today it accords cults the same constitutional protection accorded to long-standing and commonly accepted faiths.

Leo Pfeffer


New York University Review of Law and Social Change 1979–1980 Volume 9, #1: Proceedings of Conference on Alternative Religions, Government Control and the First Amendment.