A new move to give cult converts time to "think it over'
They call it the "cult bill." If signed by Gov. Hugh Carey (D) of New York, it would allow courts to appoint a temporary guardian for a person if his family could prove that his ability to understand or control conduct had been impaired by a "systematic course of coercive persuasion" at the hands of a group that had lied about its true goals and activities.
The bill was approved by the Legislature June 30 as an amendment to the state's mental hygiene law.
It was passed over strong opposition from civil libertarians and the main-line churches, reflecting the persisting popular pressure for lawmakers to do something about family problems linked to young people who join cults.
Interest in developing similar legislation has been expressed by legislators in 11 other states, according to the originator of the New York bill, Rep. Howard Lasher (D) of Brooklyn.
After confirming what the bill calls "psychological deterioration," a court would then prescribe a program, conducted by a psychiatrist or certified psychologist, to enable the person "to make informed and independent judgments at the end of the period of temporary guardianship."
The bill is drawing loud outcries from numerous organizations worried about possible infringement of religious and personal liberties -- including the National Council of Churches and the American Jewish Congress, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the state mental health commissioner.
The NYCLU, for its part, says the terms of the bill are dangerously vague, difficult (if not impossible) for the courts to interpret, and violate First Amendment safeguards of freedom of conscience and church-state separation.
"Everyone realizes that the cult problem is very difficult," argues Thomas B. Stoddard, legislative counsel to the NYCLU. "But this is not the way to deal with it. This is big-brotherism of the worst sort." Nevertheless, a majority of New York legislators have not seen things that way. They were swayed by depth of parental concern over cults' alleged use of sophisticated and deceptive techniques of mind control.
The extent of support in New York surprises some lawyer who have kept track of recent American attempts to regulate cults.
Congress, although it held extensive hearings after the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana 2 1/2 years ago, eventually gave up the idea of cult laws. A cult bill in the Connecticut Legislature failed to get enough votes last month. And last year another cult bill in New York was vetoed by Governor Carey.
Part of the reason for the ongoing support in New York may lie in reaction to the extensive activities here of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Hari Krishnas.
Further support for the bill has been expressed by clergymen, mental health officials, and various wings of New York's large Jewish community, according to an aide to Representative Lasher. Proponents also have given their bill a new face this year to resolve constitutional objections raised by the governor.
Sen. Joseph Pisani (R), a csponsor, explained during heated floor debate that the new bill is not designed to change people's minds or to judge the beliefs of a religious group.
Rather, he said, it is to provide families with "a mechanism" to see if their children have been able to make rational decisions about the direction they have taken and to understand its consequences.
The "mechanism" temporary guardianship, would go into effect for only 45 days , he explained, after which an individual would be free. And it would be kept under strict supervision of the courts at all points.
Nevertheless, according to the NYCLU, the dangers are legion.
Conceivably, any relative -- including a child or a grandparent -- could obtain a court order to remove a person from his surroundings and entrust him to the care of a guardian. It would be exceeding difficult and subjective for courts to interpret such phrases as "psychological deterioration," and "systematic course of coercive persuasion," the NYCLU maintains. Nothing in the bill limits or explains such terms.