Statement of American Civil Liberties Union on Forcible Removal of Adepts from Unpopular Religious Groups

The American Civil Liberties Union exists entirely to defend the constitutional rights of all Americans. We have applied this single-standard throughout our 57-year history regardless of the popularity or unpopularity of the individual or group whose rights we defend. In short, our client is the Bill of Rights.

We make this introductory statement because often the stand of the ACLU in support of a civil liberties principle is confused with support of the belief of those whose rights we defend. This confusion was prevalent in the 1930's when the rights of labor unions to organize were infringed; in the 1940's and 1950's when the rights of Communists and other dissenters to American foreign policy were denied;  and even in the 1960's when certain activities of anti-Vietnam War dissidents were punished.

We believe this same attitude prevails with respect to our position on the forcible removal of adults from unpopular religious movements. We, therefore, want to state clearly what the position of the ACLU is in this matter.

In March 1977 the national Board of Directors, after full debate, adopted the following statement which deals solely with what we regard as a violation of constitutional freedoms.

"ACLU opposes he use of mental incompetency proceedings, temporary conservatorship, or denial of government  protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion, at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority.

Mode of religious proselytizing or persuasion for a continued adherence that do not employ physical coercion or threat of same are protected by the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment against action of state laws or by state officials. The claim of free exercise may not be overcome by the contention that 'brainwashing' or 'mind control' has been used, in the absence of evidence that the above standards have been violated."

The national Board reached this decision in the exact same manner as with all other policies, by seeking the guidance of specialized subject matter committees. In this instance, because questions of religious freedom were raised, the matter was studied by our Church-State Committee.

The Committee began study of this issue in the fall of 1976. It gave serious consideration to the charge by parents and by former members of religious groups that some of these groups use high pressure and/or unfair techniques that amount to a form of "brainwashing" of converts. This concern was presented through numerous letters, phone calls and documents. The Committee disagreed with the argument that seizing members of religious groups is justified because "brainwashing" has eliminated their freedom of thought. It asserted, in its recommendation of policy to the ACLU national Board, that techniques of persuasion that do not use or threaten physical coercion are protected by the First Amendment.

Some of those who disagree with this view have accused the ACLU of not considering their arguments. Further, opponents claim that the ACLU has been manipulated by members of some religious groups. Neither of these charges is true. Our policy was adopted only after full and free discussion of the issues raised by unconventional religions. In fact, immediately prior to board consideration of this issue, a letter from a parent of a former Unification Church member, urging that the ACLU Board reject the policy recommendation, was distributed to each Board member.

We can understand the anguish of parents whose children, of whatever are, leave the family faith to join groups which are viewed as bizarre or harmful. But, at some point - and eighteen is now generally regarded as the age of majority - children become legally autonomous persons and have the same rights to freedom of religion and association as their parents.

The ACLU's sole mandate is to uphold the freedoms guaranteed to every adult by the constitution. Parents have the right to attempt to influence their childrens' religious affiliation. It is when these children are adults and the influence is forcible that the ACLU objects, particularly when such coercion is aided by the power of the state.

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