State panel discusses the extent of cultlike activity on campuses

Task force shifts its focus to any `destructive' group

August 10, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A state task force wrestled yesterday with the challenge of trying to decide what, if anything, should be done to protect Maryland college students from cultlike organizations that use campuses as recruiting grounds.

The legislature created the panel last year after complaints from two families whose children had become involved with the International Church of Christ at the University of Maryland, College Park, a group known for its aggressive recruitment efforts on college campuses.

The 17-member task force, which began meeting in May, includes representatives from the University System of Maryland, St. Mary's College and Morgan State University, as well as parents, students and four legislators. The panel must submit a report to the legislature and governor by Sept. 30.

William T. Wood, a member of the system's Board of Regents and the chairman of the task force, said the panel decided not to try to define "cult," but to focus instead on "destructive organizations" of any type.

The task force is trying to determine the extent to which there are groups on public campuses that are "causing demonstrable physical, psychological or emotional harm to students" or are "interfering substantially with the educational mission of the institution," according to the panel's mission statement.

Anuttama Dasa, a spokesman for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a group commonly known as Hare Krishnas, told the panel he was concerned it was on a "slippery slope" to targeting particular groups.

"You have the power of the government behind you," Dasa said. "I would urge you to exercise it very, very carefully."

Wood said the task force will not name any organization in its report.

Jonathan Abady, a New York attorney who has represented the International Church of Christ, told task force members they have legitimate concerns but should not lose sight of the values of tolerance and diversity.

"College-age students are adults, not children," Abady said.

But the panel also heard from people like Karan Townsend, who teaches English at Washington Bible College in Lanham. She said her daughter, Shannon, then 19, dropped abruptly from sight in May 1998 after joining a cultlike group at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Townsend said her daughter called to tell her she was quitting college to do missionary work. She later learned her daughter had become involved with a group known as "The Brethren," followers of a man named Jim Roberts.

Townsend said members are isolated from family and friends, and that she has not been able to see or speak to her daughter since she joined the group.

The panel got a different view from Hana Lyn Colvin, 16, of Glen Burnie. She objected to comments a task force member made at the group's last meeting.

"I think that people who speak to this task force should be listened to courteously and should not be called `brainwashed,' " Colvin said.

Colvin, a member of the Unification Church, described herself as a "typical teen-ager" who just has different religious beliefs from her classmates.

Richard L. Rubenstein, president of the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, which was kept open through an infusion of money from the Unification Church in 1992, said that the issue is religious freedom.

"I can understand why people have apprehensions about their children going to a religious tradition to which they were not born. Nonetheless, that's the price of freedom," Rubenstein said.

Wood said after the meeting that the panel has not decided whether enough problems exist with "destructive organizations" on campuses to warrant recommending changes in state law or school policies.

"The task force must be very careful not to impinge on any individual's or group's constitutional rights," Wood said.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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