A state task force investigating religious cults on Maryland's university campuses is facing a constitutional challenge from a group affiliated with the Unification Church.
The International Association of Religious Freedom has sued the state in U.S. District Court, contending that the legislation creating the 17-member task force in May 1998 violates First Amendment rights to religious freedom.
"This is a '90s version of the '50s red scare," said Dan Fefferman, director of the Virginia-based association, which is funded by businesses and individuals in the Unification Church. "The state of Maryland is looking for a `cultist' under every college dormitory bed."
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly identified a group suing the state in relation to a task force studying cults on public college campuses. The name of the group is the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. The Sun regrets the error.
A major target of the anti-cult movement since the 1970s, the Unification Church is a group organized around the teachings of leader Sun Myung Moon, a Korean prophet who expounds a version of Christianity called the Divine Principle.
William Wood, chairman of the task force and an attorney who serves on the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, declined to comment.
The lawsuit says the state has targeted religious minorities for questioning and created a chilling climate that inhibits religious practices within groups that have not been long established or fail to conform to the status quo.
The task force was formed after the parents of two University of Maryland, College Park students complained about what they termed the aggressive recruitment efforts of the International Church of Christ. The legislature passed a resolution for an examination of "cult activities" on the state's college campuses.
Before the legislation passed, state university system officials made informal queries on campuses and concluded that minimal cult activity exists.
The task force met several times to hear testimony and has issued a questionnaire about cults to college chaplains, counselors and faculty advisers.
In the lawsuit, the association said such questioning is an example of how the panel might be creating a "chilling effect."
Jeffrey Hadden, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who studies religious movements, agreed.
"This is a witch hunt," said Hadden, who has published a detailed description of the panel's work on his Web site about religious movements. "Where's religious freedom in America?"
Other scholars have argued that the panel's activities have been appropriately constrained.
"As long as the panel has no power, there shouldn't be a problem," said University of Maryland law professor David S. Bogen, who appeared before the task force in June to describe First Amendment concerns.
Bogen cautioned that a question might be raised about whether the investigation has a chilling effect, particularly if the task force recommends prohibitions or punishments or further investigations linked to a specific group.
The lawsuit claims that legislators "commenced a religious inquisition" after heavy lobbying by anti-cult organizations.
After a task force meeting Aug. 9, Wood spoke of the panel's failure to define the word cult and said the panel would shift its focus to an investigation of "destructive organizations" of any type.
John Anderson, an assistant attorney general representing the state in the lawsuit, said the panel "has done its work as true to the charge as possible," but he would not comment "on the extent to which they have changed their mission."
The task force includes representatives of the University System, St. Mary's College and Morgan State University, as well as parents, students and four legislators.
Task force members are to present a report to the legislature by Sept. 30. Wood has said no specific group would be named.
Pub Date: 8/26/99