Cults can harm students, so colleges should monitor campus groups, study says

Some say task force violates Constitution

September 19, 1999|By Erin Heath | Erin Heath,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Cults can do severe harm to students and should be carefully monitored by colleges, a task force assigned to study the organizations' activities on Maryland campuses has concluded.

Although cult membership on campus is small, "recruitment and approaches by all types of groups are a commonplace occurrence," according to an executive summary of a report prepared by the Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions.

Campuses are often not fully prepared to deal with the cults and "when interaction with a group causes harm to a student, that harm can be very severe," said the summary, obtained by Capital News Service.

The task force completed its report last week and sent it to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and leaders of the Maryland General Assembly, said task force Chairman William T. Wood.

The panel was initiated by Glendening, a former University of Maryland professor.

Not all religion-based

Wood said the task force didn't focus on "cults," but rather "dangerous groups" that are not necessarily based on religion.

"Our focus is whether there are groups of any kind on college campuses that are causing harm to students," he said.

U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg refused last week to issue an injunction preventing the task force from issuing its report in a ruling on a lawsuit that challenges the task force on constitutional grounds.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., declined to hear an appeal of Legg's ruling.

Legg has not ruled on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, filed by the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, which is associated with the Unification Church.

The task force found that the number of groups causing harm to people was "very small," but that any harm caused by cults can be significant, Wood said. Figures on the extent of the problem on the 15 state college campuses were not included in the executive summary.

"There have been students who have testified about their own experiences with destructive campus groups, and several [had] heartbreaking stories to tell," he said.

The task force recommended that campuses compile complaints about cults, make unsponsored organizations register with the campus and produce annual reports about the groups.

"All that is is a concept, but all aspects need to be approved by the attorney general's office," Wood said.

"The task force wants to make certain that whatever program is put in place is fair to all parties, but at the same time, effective."

Study found distasteful

At a Sept. 9 meeting of the task force, some audience members said they found the study distasteful.

The task force study "is almost guaranteed to create an environment of hostility and suspicion," said anthropology professor William Stuart, who teaches a class on social and religious movements.

"The anti-cult forces are themselves a kind of cult," Stuart said.

Dan Fefferman, a Unification Church member and executive director of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, said the activities of the task force were unconstitutional because they infringed on the right to practice religion.

"Over the next several years, we'll probably have several hundred members entering the University System of Maryland," he said at the Sept. 9 meeting. "The state doesn't have any business calling groups cults."

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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