Cults and Religious Freedom in the United States

Catherine Kaufman, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The United States is fascinated by cults. Television series are full of references—cults are present in every genre, from comedy and crime to horror and documentary. Cults are in the headlines too, with the recent NXIVM trials capturing America’s attention. With varying degrees of opposition, cults have been present in American society since its inception.

Given the hysteria around cult activities, how do these groups exist within the U.S. government’s regulations? Are there any laws or policies in place to prevent a person from establishing or following such an organization? The answer, perhaps alarmingly, is that policies explicitly addressing cults are few and far between. However, there are some laws and policies that attempt to regulate and control groups that operate too far outside the mainstream.


What is a Cult?

The word “cult” is not universal. The term is somewhat ambiguous, and its pejorative
connotation makes its use controversial and frequently disputed. Generally, it’s used to describe social or religious groups with shared, unusual, or psychologically manipulative beliefs, often directed toward a particular person or object. This definition could be broadened or narrowed to include anything from political parties to an extended family, but it’s typically used to refer to small religious groups whose tendencies differ from mainstream religious behavior and beliefs.

Government Responses

Authoritarian states such as China and Russia have defined groups that have been deemed dangerous in some way to the government. These countries have either banned groups or kept them under close supervision, joining an increasing number of countries around the world imposing growing restrictions on religious freedom and government favoritism of certain religious groups. These policies are also often used to control minority groups, including the Uyghurs in China. Other democratic countries, such as France, ban religious cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists on the grounds that banning these groups increases religious freedom for everyone else.

As a democracy with a constitution that requires the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, the U.S. government cannot make these overarching distinctions. Explicitly singling out one religious group as a “cult” and not another would violate the free exercise of religion guaranteed to its citizens. Despite these protections, the U.S. has made some attempts to stop cult activity.

Historical U.S. Policies and Legislation

Rather than outright banning religious groups, the United States has a history of restricting religious practices associated with said groups. For example, in the 1870s, the Territory of Utah had a statute banning polygamy, which a Mormon man challenged in an 1878 Supreme Court case after they charged him with having multiple wives. The Court ruled that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

The Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, the latter of which passed after President Grover Cleveland “recommend[ed] that a law be passed to prevent the importation of Mormons into the country,” continued this idea by expanding on the polygamy ban and disenfranchising the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Supreme Court later upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1890. In a 1946 Supreme Court case regarding polygamous practices, the Court outright described the polygamous group (at this point a break-off from the main Mormon faith) as a cult, stating that the petitioners belonged to the “Fundamentalist cult of the Mormon faith.” Though Congress ultimately repealed the Act in 1978, polygamy is still illegal, according to Reynolds v. United States (1879). Enforcement is difficult, however, since there is often not a paper trail, and it is considered a non-serious offense.

Another restriction of this type regards Jehovah’s Witnesses. Especially during times of extreme patriotism, such as during and after the World Wars, the sect was at odds with the American public due to their refusal to engage in patriotic activities such as military service or pledging allegiance to the flag. The country saw them as a frightening new group too far outside the mainstream. The Jehovah’s Witnesses fought and, unlike the Mormons, won several Supreme Court cases that established a trend toward greater religious freedom, including striking down a law that required proselytizers to register with the city. However, the group also lost several cases that restricted their activity; the Court ultimately held that children under 12 could not sell pamphlets in public places, that “fighting words” were not protected by the First Amendment, and that religious groups needed a license to conduct services on public property. Essentially, the U.S. made its respect for religious freedom clear while still emphasizing the necessity of adherence to certain laws.

Brainwashing and Deprogramming

The 1978 Jonestown Massacre sparked a new fear of extreme cults in the United States. “Concerned Relatives” argued that the members of their group, originating in the U.S., were being held in Guyana against their will. Their pleas eventually convinced Congressman Leo Ryan to go and investigate—he was later shot and killed by members on a fact-finding mission. That same day, members followed the leader’s instructions to drink cyanide-laced punch, thus inspiring the phrase “drink the Kool-aid.” The public tried to understand this mass, voluntary suicide. Although the idea had been around since the 1950s when the CIA discredited those who espoused communist views, the U.S. public became more interested in brainwashing and mind control partly as a result of this tragedy.

The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) formed as a direct result of the Jonestown massacre, and other anti-cult movements took it upon themselves to engage in deprogramming, a method of changing a cult member’s beliefs and behaviors to align more with societal norms, reversing the effects of mind control used by cult leaders. Deprogramming was often done forcibly by essentially kidnapping a cult member and attempting to un-brainwash them by employing a wide variety of methods. In the 1980s, some states attempted to introduce bills to legalize deprogramming, including New York, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. However, these bills were ultimately never made into law.

Brainwashing has since been debunked as a psychological explanation of cult membership. Rebecca Moore, a scholar of religious studies and sister of two women who planned the Jonestown Massacre, states the idea is pseudo-scientific. She argues that the change is a three-step process: conversion, conditioning, and coercion. These differences, she says, help to humanize the victims of cults and actually explain their behavior. By the mid-1990s, attempts to understand cult membership had shifted to the field of psychology. More modern deprogramming operates within the law and takes a more educational, voluntary approach, and groups like CAN have disbanded, in part due to government and court decisions that forcible deprogramming is both unsuccessful and unconstitutional.

The Future of Cults

Although the United States is becoming less religious overall, acceptance of non-Judeo-Christians is rising, especially among younger Americans. As citizens move away from traditional, organized religion, there may be a broader acceptance of beliefs that fall outside the mainstream, potentially leading to a shift away from attempts to broadly legislate cults and cult-like behavior. Though fear and fascination with cults is undoubtedly present, the definition of a cult is so broad that it cannot possibly be extended to certain groups by the U.S. government without infringing on religious freedom.

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