Cults in Court
Sara Van Hoey
San Francisco, California
Harms associated with cultic groups have been addressed through various forms
of self-help, conservatorship, habeas corpus proceedings, consumer protection
legislation, and litigation. First Amendment concerns loom large in such
remedies. This paper reviews three important instances of litigation: Molko v.
Holy Spirit Association, George v. International Society for Krishna
Consciousness, and Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology. These and other cases
indicate that self-proclaimed religious organizations are heading towards a time
of greater accountability. Juries tend to be sympathetic toward plaintiffs,
though courts seem unwilling to enforce judgments so large they threaten a
Cults in America are widely misunderstood by the general public. Many have
become mainstream and have gained a measure of wealth, respectability and
security, if not downright social legitimacy.  Cults occasionally surface in
the news: recently, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant
sparked a bitter controversy when its members dug multiple ground shelters under
acres of Montana landscape to prepare for "the end of the world." The Los
Angeles Times published a six-part expose of L. Ron Hubbard's Church of
Scientology in June, 1990 in the wake of recent cases against that organization.
In the past, news coverage of the cult phenomenon often was limited to
discoveries of grossly aberrant, sensational or criminal activities, such as the
People's Temple massacre in Guyana. Much was written in the late seventies and
early eighties about the dangers posed to society by groups that abuse mind
control techniques under the guise of religion, but public attention in the late
eighties shifted to other issues, particularly drug abuse and AIDS.
The cult problem, however, is ongoing and ever-growing, and remains a threat to
America's young people. One anti-cult organization estimates that there are more
than 2,500 cults and other "destructive totalist" organizations now active in
the United States, and these groups control approximately six million members.
Combating the cults presents its own problems. Those seeking to hold cults
accountable for their actions against individual members inevitably clash with
the cults' assertion of their fundamental right to religious liberty. The courts
have tackled these competing interests in several recent cases with results that
may give hope to critics of cult groups. But the battles are far from over.
Cults  are coordinated programs that systematically apply undue influence and
behavior control techniques to produce in members substantial modification of
fundamental modes of thought, world view and conduct. Margaret Singer, a
professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and San
Francisco and an expert on the impact of cultic influences on individual
personality, defined cults as:
Groups with religious, political, psychological, and other ideologies at their
core, which almost universally offer as their central theme a special, new
psychological awareness handed down by an indisputable and arbitrary authority
that uses the technique of thought reform. 
Ford Greene, a California attorney who has taken on the Moonies and defended
deprogrammers,  offers a definition tailored from his experience:
A cult is an organization of people, often masquerading in the guise of
religion, members of which are unconditionally and indiscriminately obedient to
the commands of a single leader who claims to have an exclusive connection with
God or some other supra-human source o moral authority. 
The courts rely on Webster's Dictionary and the standard definition of
"brainwashing" as "the forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up
basic political, social or religious beliefs and attitudes and to
accept contrasting regimented ideas."  Greene's definition is more specific:
Brainwashing is the application of specific and identifiable techniques that are
intended to, and do, undermine an individual's ability to reason and impair his
capacity to exercise an informed consent and replaces those functions with
indiscriminate and unconditional obedience to the commands of a single leader.
The term first appeared in reports of the effects of communist indoctrination.
Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton describes eight basic characteristics of
brainwashing in his study of Chinese totalitarian control: "Milieu Control,
Mystical Manipulation, Demand for Purity, Cult of Confession, Sacred Science,
Loading of Language, Doctrine Over Person, and Dispensing of Existence. 
These elements are accepted by cult experts as being applicable to modern cults,
and the Lifton model of brainwashing is currently used by attorneys pursuing
cults in formulating statements of fact and educating the court. 
Techniques and Casualties
The technology of coercive influence programs recently has developed far beyond
what was employed in the Soviet Union and China, in that the previous
applications were for the purpose of extracting confessions or effecting
political reorientation.  Experts claim the programs developed within the
last 15 years differ significantly in the scope and sophistication of the
influence tactics they employ.  These differences are of particular concern
to individuals seeking remedies in tort for damages done to them by cults.
The newer programs attack a person's self-image, sense of reality and of
existence, making the individual feel personally defective. "Alter the self or
perish" is the motto.  Once fundamental coping mechanisms are tampered with
or stripped away, psychosis can result.
Most people who have come away from a cult experience, family and friends of
cult victims, and experts in behavioral science familiar with cultism agree that
mind control techniques sustained even for short periods of time can cause
damage to a person's social, physiological, and psychological well-being. If not
interrupted, drastic (and sometimes pathological) changes in personality occur
and are potentially irreversible. Even if the encounter with such programs of
manipulation is brief and exit from them successful, the experience can ruin
lives. Apart from these dangers, experts suggest a real threat to society exists
in the form of harm to the family relationship, espousal of illegal and harmful
practices, and a potential for violence. 
Given the nature of the perceived harm posed by cult groups on the mind and body
of individuals, and assuming that society has compelling interests favoring
prevention or intervention, what courses of action are available? Possible
remedies include conservatorship  and habeas corpus proceedings, 
consumer protection legislation,  various forms of self-help, including
deprogramming,  and litigation.
In resisting any restriction on their activities, cults and their attorneys
claim that hysterical parents, intolerant of their children's choice of a
religion, simply are trying to force their children to remain under their
control. Writers defending cults attack the anti-cult movement as creating a
"new bigotry" and a "cult scare" more offensive than the cults themselves. 
More importantly, cult sympathizers and their defense attorneys argue cult
indoctrination practices are simple conversion,  and the brainwashing theory
is a kind of witch hunt designed to eradicate
"out-of-the-mainstream faith groups." Indeed, the recent cases against cults are
most alarming to cult sympathizers as a threat to religious pluralism and
freedom, because damage awards in the millions threaten the wealth and perhaps
even the very existence of the organizations.  The critics' strongest
argument, one that requires careful consideration, is that the First Amendment
guarantees these groups immunity from accountability. 
First Amendment Concerns
Legal scholar Richard Delgado's analysis of the potential impact of various
forms of intervention (including legislation and court action) in cult-related
matters on the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment
 has been cited by other cult experts and courts in their decisions. Delgado
notes that while the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment guarantees
that Congress shall make no law prohibiting individuals from freely pursuing any
religion they choose, not everything under the religion umbrella is protected,
however. The law distinguishes between religious belief, which is absolutely
protected,  and religiously motivated conduct, which is not.  In this
country, an individual is free to choose his religion,  and society,
particularly the government and the courts, must treat that belief as an
inviolable matter of conscience. Hence, the courts refuse to address the truth
or falsity of doctrines.
Religiously motivated conduct is subject to a balancing test in which the
state's interest in regulating or forbidding activity is weighted against the
severity of the burden it imposes on religion. The government must offer
sufficient proof of an overriding interest. The religious group is subject to
attack if the belief behind its conduct is found to be insincerely held or if
the conduct is not central to the group's belief system.  Groups whose
activities smack of economic priorities (including fund-raising and proselytizing)
are particularly vulnerable to charges of insincerity.
The over-protection of individuals or groups who practice mind-control
techniques in connection with religious practices may actually frustrate the
fundamental values expressed in the First Amendment. Bending over backwards to
protect religious liberty may develop into a simple license to perpetuate
illusion, deception, and exploitation of the unsuspecting.
Delgado finds support from Thomas Jefferson for the theory that the religious
liberty clause was originally intended to protect the freedom of the mind as
well as other freedoms: "Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested
his supreme will that free it shall remain."  Thus the Jeffersonian view of
religious toleration did not contemplate protection of groups who use
destructive persuasion to diminish the psychic autonomy of their members.
The Molko Case
Three of the most significant cases regarding ex-cult members and their families
pursuing remedies in tort for damages have been decided in California in the
last two years. These cases show that the legal arguments for restricting cult
activities are having an impact on the courts.
In Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn.,  plaintiffs Molko and Leal, within five
months of each other, were induced to join the Holy Spirit Association for the
Unification of World Christianity (the Moonies) in
the usual fashion. While waiting at a bus station, each was approached by
strangers who identified themselves simply as "socially conscious" people with
no particular religious connections.  The strangers invited each of them to
dinner at an "international community" gathering place or a "creative community
project"  Both plaintiffs accepted the invitation, unaware that the
strangers were Moonies, and subsequently agreed to spend the evening at a "farm"
called Booneville, unaware that this was an indoctrination facility for the
In the following days, both plaintiffs were subjected to a tightly planned
exercise/lecture/discussion regimen, and they were accompanied at all times by
church members during breaks for meals and bathroom visits. Both occasionally
asked if the group was "religious" (Leal even directly asked if they were
Moonies) but the answer was no -- that is, until the second or third week of the
indoctrination, by which time each member expressed anger and confusion at
discovering the true nature of the group but agreed not to leave immediately.
After only one month, Molko was alienated from his parents, believing them to be
"agents of Satan." Within three to four months of their involvement with the
group, each plaintiff was subsequently abducted from a public place by their
parents and professionally "deprogrammed." 
Molko and Leal sued for fraud arising from deceptive recruitment practices,
intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment. Molko
added his own claim for restitution of the $6,000
that he had donated to the church. The church cross-complained against the
plaintiffs' deprogrammers for indemnification, on the theory that it was the
abduction and deprogramming of the plaintiffs that caused their mental harm.
The trial court granted the church's motion for summary judgment on the
plaintiffs' claims but dismissed the church's civil rights claims against the
deprogrammers. The court of appeal affirmed the summary judgment on all of the
plaintiffs' claims. In ruling on the fraud issue, the court held that the
declarations of expert witnesses, including Singer, were in conflict with the
plaintiffs' own statements and, as the sole basis of the plaintiffs' theories,
flunked constitutional scrutiny. The appellate court also reversed the dismissal
of the church's cross-complaint.
The California Supreme Court upheld the appellate court decision to allow the
church summary judgment with regard to the false imprisonment claim. However,
the supreme court reversed the appellate court's decision to allow summary
judgment for the church on the remaining claims - fraud, intentional infliction
of emotional distress, and restitution  -- ruling six to one that Molko and
Leal had a right to a jury trial.
The California decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined
to hear the case.  For the first time a major court, without having to face
the "brainwashing" issue as a cause of action, has accepted the premise that
religious indoctrination can cause potential converts to lose the free exercise
of their will and, in consequence, can sue for damages.  This represents a
major coup for future plaintiffs in similar actions, particularly in light of
the court's analysis of the First Amendment issues and its reliance on the work
of Lifton, Delgado, Schein and Singer in making important distinctions within
Fraud and Deceit
The state supreme court found that the existence of differing views as to the
effectiveness of brainwashing raised a factual question that should have gone to
the jury. Both plaintiffs declared they had been unwittingly subjected to mind
control techniques after they had been fraudulently subjected to Moonie
indoctrination and before the Moonies disclosed their true identity. The church
conceded misrepresentations were made with intent to induce Molko and Leal's
participation (Molko and Leal described "Heavenly Deception" as a Moonie belief
that it is acceptable to lie to a potential convert in this way; the church
denied any such policy.) Molko and Leal contended that, in light of the alleged
brainwashing, there was a triable issue of fact as to whether reliance on those
misrepresentations was justified.
The plaintiffs further contended they did not question the truth or falsity of
the church's beliefs, nor their sincerity; rather, they challenged the
fraudulent conduct in implementing those beliefs. The court agreed the validity
of belief was not in question but rather the practice of "deceiving nonmembers
into subjecting themselves, without their knowledge or consent, to coercive
The court determined the burden of such liability on the church's religious
conduct was not substantial. The appellate court disagreed, relying on Katz v.
Superior Court,  which also involved allegations of brainwashing against the
Unification Church.  The supreme court distinguished Katz and held that the
present burden on the church members' free exercise of religion did not compare
to the circumstances in Katz: "At most, it potentially closes one questionable
avenue for bringing new members into the [c]hurch. 
The court then justified even this "marginal burden" on the church's free
exercise of religion "by the compelling state interest in protecting individuals
and families from the substantial threat to public safety, peace and order posed
by the fraudulent induction of unconsenting individuals into an atmosphere of
coercive persuasion."  The court asserted the consequences of such coercion
on some individuals is the development of "serious and sometimes irreversible
physical and psychiatric disorders, up to and including schizophrenia,
self-mutilation and suicide."  The court found no less drastic alternative
available (such as criminalizing brainwashing, obtaining signed informed consent
of potential converts, or authorization involuntary deprogramming).
Finally, the court concluded its thorough First Amendment analysis by finding
that traditional sanctioning of tort liability for fraudulent recruitment, as in
this case, satisfies the requirement that the state's secular goals are advanced
without discrimination between religions.
Having found the fraud theory constitutionally permissible, the court then
examined whether under that theory the church's conduct also gave rise to an
action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs' claims
rested on more than just threats of divine retribution or other protected
religious speech. The court examined whether the church's conduct in
fraudulently inducing the plaintiffs into an atmosphere of coercive persuasion
was "extreme and outrageous" enough to support a cause of action.
The court found the church's "continued deceptions might well be seen as conduct
breaching plaintiffs' trust in the integrity of those who were promising to make
their lives more meaningful," which might constitute an abuse of the church's
position of power to damage the plaintiffs. The court held that the issue of the
extremity or outrageousness of the church's conduct must be left to the jury.
Leal sought to make the church liable for falsely imprisoning her by threatening
divine retribution against herself and her family. The court found that false
imprisonment may be effected by fraud or deceit but threats of divine
retribution constituted protected religious speech and, absent actual physical
restraint, there was no cause of action. Molko's restitution claim fared better.
The court found there was a triable issue of fact "as to whether Molko lost his
ability to make independent decisions as a result of being deceived into
submitting to coercive persuasion." 
The Robin George Case
On May 14, 1990, the United States Supreme Court refused review of George v.
International Society for Krishna Consciousness,  a case that has been
called "the most important single religious liberty case ever to reach it." 
The California Supreme Court had refused to consider the case on November 30,
1989 and ordered the appellate decision to be depublished. While the case has
lost its value as precedent, the judgment of what is now $5 million (including
interest) against the Krishna organization still stands. To the chagrin of cult
defenders and the Krishnas, this may mean the forced sale of some of its real
property, including temples, monasteries, schools, and its world headquarters in
At the age of 14, Robin George visited a Krishna temple in Laguna Beach with a
friend and, after repeated visits, became a full member. The head of the temple
convinced the girls their parents were demons, told them it was permissible to
deceive non-believers such as their parents who were blind to the "truth," and
persuaded them to run away from home to a Krishna hiding Place.
For over a year, Robin's parents tried to get the Krishnas to reveal Robin's
whereabouts, but instead they moved her from temple to temple around the country
and eventually to Canada while telling her parents they had no idea where she
was. While Robin was in the cult, her father was diagnosed with a heart
condition, a fact Robin's mother made clear to the Krishna leaders.
Upon learning from a friend of Robin's that she was being hidden in Canada, the
Georges called the police, who threatened the Krishnas with criminal prosecution
if they did not produce the girl. After the
Krishnas' attorney instructed Robin to lie to the police about the circumstances
of her indoctrination, she fled and eventually returned home.
Less than four months later, Robin's father suffered a heart attack, followed by
several strokes, and he died the following September. An expert at trial
testified that two years of anxiety over his daughter
aggravated his heart condition and caused him an early death.
Robin and Marcia George became anti-cult activists. On the eve of a Citizens
Freedom Foundation press conference at which the Georges were to speak, the
Krishnas put out an "official statement" concerning Robin claiming she had run
away from her parents because of "cruelty, beatings, harsh treatment." 
In October 1977, Robin and Marcia George sued the Krishnas for false
imprisonment of Robin, intentional infliction of emotional distress to both,
libel to both, and Robin sued for the wrongful death of her father.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Georges on all causes of action and
awarded them in excess of $32.5 million. The Georges accepted a remittitur
reducing both punitive and compensatory damages to a total of $7.9 million.
The tort of false imprisonment derives from the crime of "unlawful violation of
the personal liberty of another"  and this involves, with one exception,
direct physical restraint or the threat of physical restraint. The exception is
when false imprisonment is accomplished by fraud or deceit. 
The court of appeal found that Robin had not sufficiently established she had
been falsely imprisoned in that 1) there was no proof offered of force or threat
of force; 2) she was over 14 when enticed to leave home, an age the court found
to be "capable of consenting to conduct that would otherwise be tortious" and 3)
she resented no evidence of fraud as to herself.
Robin sought to distinguish the Molko court's finding on false imprisonment as
based solely on protected religious speech, whereas her brainwashing theory
involved more than simple threats of divine retribution. The court determined
she had not proved her case, and went on to describe Molko as
a reaffirmation that physical force or the threat of it is a necessary element
of a false imprisonment cause of action even in the context of a brainwashing
claim. The plaintiff's divine retribution argument was a last-ditch attempt to
satisfy the threat requirement (emphasis added). 
Molko's attorney, Ford Greene, sees this view as in line with the Molko
decision, which established that the brainwashing theory itself does not require
a showing of force or threat of force as a necessary element of a thought reform
regime.  However, the claim of false imprisonment must be supported by such
In Molko, the allegations of fraudulent inducement to join the Moonies had been
an essential element of the emotional distress claim. Here, there was no
misrepresentation or concealment of the cult's identity from Robin, so there was
no fraudulent inducement to join the cult or expose herself to coercive
persuasion. The court found Robin had not been subjected to anymore outrageous
behavior than a member of any cloistered religious group.
The evidence was sufficient, however, to support liability for this claim as to
the mother, "since the Krishnas recklessly disregarded the probability that
their conduct would cause the daughter's parents emotional suffering."  The
essence of actionable conduct here was a conspiracy to assist Robin in hiding
from her parents. Robin's mother's claim was based on that assistance and not,
as the defendants maintained, on the activities that led to Robin's conversion,
which the court held to be constitutionally protected religious activities. 
The Wollersheim Case
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case of Wollersheim v.
Church of Scientology,  a decision that upheld a damage award for the
ex-Scientology member seeking relief but which contained language that may
provide difficulties in future lawsuits by ex-cult members.
Larry Wollersheim was a manic-depressive for most of his life, an important fact
of which the Church of Scientology was aware. From 1972 through 1979 he became
heavily involved in Scientology and underwent rigorous encounter sessions known
as "auditing"  aboard a ship owned by the group. When he tried to escape, he
was forcibly restrained and made to continue the sessions in spite of his
feeling that he "was dying and losing (his) mind." One psychiatric expert
witness in the trial noted that his was one of several events underlying and
causing Wollersheims's mental illness. Scientology also pressured him to
"disconnect" from his family.
Convinced that auditing was causing him psychiatric problems, Wollersheim
decided to risk becoming a target of Scientology's "freeloader debt" and "fair
game" campaigns, which are aimed at discouraging defectors,  Risk became
reality when Wollersheim left the group: Scientologists initiated a campaign to
ruin his photography business. Wollersheim went bankrupt and ended up in
In his complaint, Wollersheim alleged fraud, and negligent and intentional
infliction of emotional injury.  The trial court summarily decided
Scientology is a religion and auditing is a religious practice.  After
hearing the evidence, the trial judge dismissed the fraud count but allowed both
emotional injury counts to go to the jury, which awarded the plaintiff $30
million in damages.
The appellate court upheld the finding of intentional infliction of emotional
injury but reversed the finding of negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Further, it found the trial court correctly ruled that Wollersheim's claims were
subject to the discovery exception to the statute of limitations.  The court
then reduced the damage award to $2.5 million, finding $30 million excessive
considering the evidence at trail that the Church of Scientology's net worth is
$16 million. Wollersheim claimed that the group's true net worth is closer to
$250 million but he failed to prove it at trial.
The court found the Church of Scientology's conduct met every requirement of an
intentional infliction of emotional distress tort. As to the church's defense
that such conduct was protected by the First Amendment, the court had no trouble
finding it was not. The court accepted the trial court's adjudication that
Scientology is a religion for purposes of this case  but concluded that even
if Wollersheim had freely participated in the activity, it would still not be
protected religious conduct.
It was the element of coercion that lowered the value of auditing as a religious
practice. Unlike the Molko case, the retribution complained of was not divine
but in the here and now, and the state had a compelling interest in discouraging
the deliberate economic ruin of one of its citizens.
Though the First Amendment analysis is sound, the language in the opinion is
frequently disturbing. The court ventures to say that lawsuits that have a
chilling effect on practices such as auditing ought not to be tolerated because,
absent coercion, "the only harm which occurs is emotional injury to the
psychologically weak."  The findings of Lifton, Schein, Singer, Delgado and
other scholars in cult-related behavioral studies, and the testimonies of
ex-cult members, would belie such an assumption. 
In light of the recent cases involving cults and the First Amendment, it appears
self-proclaimed religious organizations are heading towards a time of greater
accountability. Courts facing cases involving religious issues classically err
on the side of religion for fear of impinging on First Amendment guarantees. The
trend now appears to be toward greater restrictions of religious activities
given strict adherence to constitutional analysis. The road for that analysis
was paved in Molko. According to Green, "We have a trend toward compelling
self-ascribed religious organizations to act responsibly and conform their
conduct to the rules of society. The days of special privileges for unethical,
if not illegal, abuse of religious liberty are coming to a close." 
It is clear from the huge damage awards in these most recent cases that juries
are sympathetic to plaintiffs who claim to have suffered from cult involvement.
It is equally clear the courts are unwilling to enforce judgments so large they
threaten the very existence of the groups in question. Plaintiffs must
adequately prove the true net worth of the defendant groups if they expect
judgments to have a truly punishing effect, but this is most difficult to
accomplish. Even so, if groups such as the Krishnas suffer multiple judgments
like the one in the George case, they will not survive.
1. The Moonies - members of the Holy spirit Association for the Unification of
World Christianity (Unification Church) headed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon -
and the Krishnas - members of the International Society of Krishna
Consciousness - presently claim membership in the millions. Experts estimate
actual Moonie membership is much lower with perhaps 8,000 members in the U.S.
Moon's real estate holdings in the U.S. were worth $200 million in 1984. As to
his political clout, see H. R. REP. OF THE SUBCOMM. ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
(Fraser Report), Oct. 31, 1978. Moon spent $42 million alone on his unsuccessful
film, Inchon. He owns the second largest newspaper in the nation's capital, the
Washington Times. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology claims a membership of
almost 4 million in the U.S. and 6 million worldwide. In 1984 Hubbard's son
estimated scientology's assets at $400 million. See Grafstein, Messianic
Capitalism, THE NEW REPUBLIC, Feb 20, 1984, at 15.
2. These figures represent the Cult Awareness Network's best estimate, based
upon figures from ex-members, mental health professionals who encounter confused
victims of such groups, and the organizations themselves.
3. These include thought reform or intense indoctrination programs found in New
Age or New Movement groups, aberrant religious sects, mass therapies and any
other group or relationship possessing the several elements of cultism described
4. Singer, Group Psychodynamics, THE MERCK MANUAL OF DIAGNOSIS AND THERAPY
(1987), ch. 136 at 1468.
5. See discussion of Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 46 Cal. 3d 1092 (1988), cert.
denied, _U.S. _, 109 S. Ct. 2110, 104 L.Ed.2d 670 (1989), infra. See also People
v. Brandyberry & Whelan, District Court, City and County of Denver, Colorado,
Case No. 87-CR-2056.
6. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 20, 1990.
7. Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 46 Cal. 3d at 1094 headnote 5.
8. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 20, 1990.
9. Lifton, R.J., Thought Reform And The Psychology Of Totalism (1963), at ch.
10. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 30, 1990.
11. Ofshe and Singer, Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and
the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques, The Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3,
No.1 (1986), at 4.
13. Id. at 18.
14. For a discussion of findings regarding psychological and societal impact of
cult activity, see generally West & Singer, Cults, Quacks, and Nonprofessional
Psychotherapies, Comprehensive Textbook Of Psychiatry/111 (1970),& 56.16,at
3247; Singer & Ofshe, Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric
Casualties, Psychiatric Annals 20;4 (Apr. 1990); Delgado, Religious Totalism:
Gentle and Ungentle Persuasion Under the First Amendment, 51 SO. CAL. LAW REV.1
(1977) F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic Of Sudden
Personality Change (1978); Glass, Kirsch & Parris, Psychiatric Disturbances
Associated with Erhard Seminars Training, 1: A Report of Cases, 134 Am J.
Psychiatry 11 (Nov. 1977); V. Bugliosi & C. Gentry, Helter Skelter (1974); V.
Bugliosi & C. Gentry, The Trial Of Patty Hearst (1976).
15. See Katz v. Superior Court , 73 Cal. App. 3rd 952 (1977) (appeals court
concluded California statute regarding conservatorships was constitutionally
vague and its use in acquiring control over a person mentally disabled by
brainwashing would deprive conservatee's rights to freedom of religion and
association). The statute was amended during the appeal so that conservatorships
are now harder to obtain; they are likewise difficult to obtain over adults in
most other states.
16. These writs, used to free persons illegally detained or held by involuntary
restraint, are broadly interpreted with respect to children and narrowly so with
respect to adults.
17. Delgado proposes several, including a requirement that cult recruiters
identify themselves at an early stage and outline to the candidate what life in
the cult will involve, or a mandatory "cooling off period." wherein new recruits
must take a break from the cult environs to consider the situation and seek
advice. Delgado, supra n. 14, at 73.
18. See generally F. Conway & J. Seigelman, Snapping, Supra N. 14; S. Hassan,
Combating Cult Mind Control (1988); T. Patrick, Let Our Children Go!(1976).
19. See, e.g., D. Bromley & A. D. Shupe, Jr., Strange Gods (1981); J. Gordon
Melton & L. Moore, The Cult Experience (1982).
20. See Streiker, Brainwashed or Converted?, The Christian Century, Aug. 2-9,
1989, at 721-23.
21. Even mainstream religious organizations rally to the defense of cult groups
as the defense of First Amendment protections becomes a common cause (see n. 25,
infra). See also Denniston, Krishna Crises Reaches Court, San Jose Mercury News,
May 12, 1990, at 10C for discussion of cult sympathizer concerns.
22. Streiker, supra n. 20, at 723.
23. Delgado, supra n. 14.
24. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 92 S. Ct 1526 (1972); Cantwell v.
Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303-04, 60 S. Ct. 900 (1940).
25. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 402-03 (1963); People v. Woody, 61 Cal. 2d
716, 718 (1964)
26. See Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. (1890); and Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S.
333 (1970). See also T. Keiser & J. Keiser, The Anatomy of Illusion (1987) at
27. See Wisconsin V. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972); Founding
Church of Scientology v. U.S.,409 F.2d1146, cert denied, 396 U.S. 963 (1969);
People v. Woody, 61 Cal. 2d 716,718 (1964); Leary v. U.S., 383 F. 2d 851 (1967);
U.S. v. Kuch, 288 F. Supp. 439 (1968); Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158
(1944); Reynolds v. U.S. 98 V.S. 145 (1878).
28. Italics in original, italicized words deleted from original 1779 draft prior
to adoption by Virginia General Assembly in 1786. Delgado at 48, citing T.
Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 2 The Papers of Thomas
Jefferson 545, 547 and 552 (1950).
29. 46 Cal.3d 1092 (1988), cert denied,_U.S._, 109 S.Ct. 2110, 104 L.Ed. 2d 670
30. Id. at 1102 and 1105.
32. The term "deprogram" is used even though professionals who aid adult cult
members in terminating their involvement with their groups prefer to be called
"exit counselors." In the last 10 years, a distinction has developed between
deprogrammers and exit counselors: deprogrammers traditionally work with
families of minor children involved in cults to remove them -- often forcibly,
and frequently with the knowledge and help of local courts or law enforcement
officers -- from their cult settings to a secret and secure location where the
counseling can be conducted without interruption. "Exit Counselors," for the
most part, insist on the "voluntary" cooperation of the non-minor cult member,
at least at the moment of introduction to the counselor. The counseling itself
is conducted in much the same fashion, where information is offered to the
subject to help him begin to make an informed decision and recover his ability
to think critically and independently. "Involuntary" exit counseling is becoming
a thing of the past, as counselors face expensive defenses to state charges of
kidnapping and tort claims of violations of civil right brought by cult groups.
Even though they frequently win these cases, the costs of suit prohibit the
frequent risk of such encounters. David Molko later became a deprogrammer
himself; all of the reputable, professional counselors were once cult members,
and their experience lends them credibility with their clients.
33. As to the church's cross-complaint, its claim for violations of federal
civil rights was allowed, and its claim for indemnity was dismissed. The court
held that there were two possible sources of harm - the mind control suffered
while in the group and the effects of the deprogrammings; thus, indemnification
was not proper. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1092.
34. May 22, 1989.
35. Brainwashing theories have been advanced in lower court cases with varying
success. Compare Merone v. Holy Spirit Assn., 125 Misc. 2d 1061, 480 N.Y.S. 2D
706 (1984); Lewis v. Holy Spirit Assn., 589 f. Supp. 10 (1983); Peterson v.
Sorlien, 299 N.W. 2d 123 (1980); Turner v. Unification Church, 602 F.2d 458
(1979); Katz v. Superior Court, 73 Cal. App.3d 952 (1977).
36. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1117. It is important to note that the supreme court in
Molko did not deal directly with a cause of action for brainwashing, as no such
claim avoids summary judgment; rather the claim was for fraudulent inducement
into allowing oneself to be brainwashed. The court left it up to the trier of
fact to determine whether the brainwashing had damaged the plaintiffs.
37. 73 Cal. App. 3d 952 (1977).
38. See nn. 15 and 35, supra.
39. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1117.
40. Id. at 1118.
42. Id. at 1125. As to the church's cross-claim against the deprogrammers, the
supreme court found there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the
deprogrammer was part of an ongoing conspiracy to prevent church members from
freely exercising their religious beliefs through interstate travel, and thus
subject to an injunction to prevent future forcible deprogramming activities.
Id. at 1127-8.
43. 213 Cal. App. 3d 729 (1989), cert. denied _ U.S. _, 110 S. Ct. 2168, 109 L.
Ed. 3d 498 (1990).
44. See Denniston, Supra n. 21.
45. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 757.
46. Pen. Code & 236.
47. Pen. Code & 237.
48. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 766.
49. Cult apologists argue the entire brainwashing theory must be predicated by
force or threat of force. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, August 1, 1990.
50. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 729
51. Robin's libel claim was not supported by the appellate court, because the
statements in the "official position" circulated by the Krishnas that were not
true were merely opinion. The court did find evidence to support the jury's
finding that the document was defamatory as to the mother, since the document
alleged physical abuse of her daughter as a reason for her leaving home, a
statement of fact determined to be false. Robin's wrongful death claim also
succeeded, as Marcia had warned the Krishna leadership of her husband's heart
condition but the Krishnas had disregarded the foreseeable harm and persisted in
hiding Robin from the family.
52. Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology, 212 Cal. App. 3d 872, 879 (1989),
cert. denied, 110 S.Ct. 1937, 109 L.Ed. 2d 300 (1990).
53. These sessions are designed to train an individual to have no emotional
response whatever to verbal stimuli. For a detailed description of this process
and its effects, see F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snapping, supran. 14, at 161-68.
54. See Allard v. Church of Scientology, 58 Cal. App. 3d 439, 443 (1976), n.1.
55. Interestingly, there was no cause of action for false imprisonment, though
the court found ample evidence of coercion, and no cause of action for invasion
of privacy, though the court found evidence that the confidences Wollersheim
made in a confessional setting were improperly disclosed.
56. Compare F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snapping supra n. 14, at 166: "The
Scientology method...has no religious or spiritual pretensions."
57. 3 Witkin, Cal. Procedure, Actions, & 356, at 383(3d ed. 1985). The question
of when he discovered, or should have discovered, all of the elements of his
causes of actions against the church was a jury question, and the court of
appeals was satisfied with their finding that Wollersheim's discovery fell
within the statutory period.
58. The court suggested this is still a question of lively debate. See Founding
Church of Scientology v. United States, 409 F.2d 1146, 1160-61 (1969); Founding
Church of Scientology v. Webster, 802 F.2d 1448, 1451 (1986).
59. Wollersheim, 212 Cal. App. 3d at 89l3.
60. Also, the court found no distinction between Scientology's policy of
"disconnect" and the "shunning" practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites.
Where shunning isolates one member of a group from the rest of the members, the
disconnect policy isolates the individual from his family outside the group.
Since in Wollersheim's case the practice of disconnect was coerced, the court
escaped having to conclude whether to follow the law in Paul v. Watchtower Bible
& Tract Soc. of New York, 819 F.2d 875 (1987) (religion cannot be held civilly
liable to shunned former member because shunning is constitutionally protected
conduct) or Bear v. Reformed Mennonite Church, 341 A.2d 105 (1975) (religion may
be civilly liable to shunned former member because shunning must yield to
compelling state interest in protecting family relations).
61. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 30, 1990.
This article first appeared in the February 1991 issue of The Los Angeles
Lawyer. It is reprinted with permission. Frank H. Free, a legal assistant in San
Francisco, contributed research to this article. The
abstract was written by the CSJ's Editor.
Sarah Van Hoey is a freelance writer and legal assistant in the San Francisco
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991