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Nebraska Deprogramming Bill

Legislation under study to aid deprogramming

(Aug 1983)

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By Kathleen Rutledge - Lincoln Journal, Nebraska

State Sen. James Goll of Tekamah said he hadn't thought much about cults before a family in his town told him about their daughter's experience with the Way International.

After bringing her home and having her "deprogrammed," he said, they still received what they took to be harassing telephone calls from people they believe to be associated with the group.

"The more I looked at and the more I listened and the more I read, the more I thought, 'Maybe we have this silent problem existing in the state,'" Goll said.

Last spring, he asked that the Legislature study cult activity in Nebraska. His interim study resolution notes that the rights of families, the powers of deprogramming centers such as one in Norfolk and the individual's constitutional right to freedom of religion collide when a cult member is captured and deprogrammed.

Adult conservatorship

Goll said he's working on "conservatorship" legislation for 1985 that would allow parents to remove and attempt to deprogram their adult children who have joined a cult. Courts would be able to appoint a temporary guardian for 45 days for a person who showed symptoms of indoctrination.

"These people that get involved do not have a sense of their own capacity for thinking," Goll said, adding that his purpose is not to infringe on their religious beliefs but to make sure they have the ability to make "independent and informed judgments." Asked how such a bill would distinguish between cults and religious organizations, Goll replied: "That's the problem." He said he plans to spend the next year gathering more information about cult activity in the state and preparing a conservatorship law that would meet constitutional tests.

Major problems

Ken Winston, legal counsel for the Judiciary Committee, said he sees constitutional problems with the approaches that have been presented so far. The first problem is in distinguishing a harmful group from a valid religious group. "As a general rule, I haven't seen any way," he said, noting the subjectiveness of the topic.

A second concern, he said, is how to define the difference in practices used in religious conversion and in brainwashing. "Most practices are so vague - how do you 'persuade' somebody?" he asked.

Legislators in other states also have tried to provide ways to ensure that people who become members of cults do so voluntarily.

In 1981, the New York Legislature passed a temporary guardianship bill that was vetoed by then-Gov. Hugh Carey.

According to the sponsor's summary, the bill required that people seeking temporary guardianship show that the group member had lost the capacity to understand and control his conduct; that the group practiced a systematic course of coercive persuasion that undermines a person's ability to make informed and independent judgments; and that the group regularly and systematically deceives its recruits about its identity and activities for recruits.

Early Christians

In a letter urging that Carey veto the bill, the New York state chairman of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told this fable:

"A man named Saul claimed he was walking down the road toward Damascus when he was blinded by a bright light and heard the voice of God. He has now changed his name to Paul and is active in the cult of an obscure Jew called Jesus of Nazareth...

"The authorities have therefore kidnapped Paul from his group (as they are entitled to do under the law) and the temporary conservator is now having him deprogrammed."

Carey's veto message said the bill is unconstitutionally vague; that it tends to infringe on areas protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and that "establishment of such temporary guardianships over (adults), without requiring objective showings of present or potential harm, violates their right to privacy by preventing them from choosing their own lifestyle."

Part 2

 

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