The Cult Phenomenon in the United States (1979) (Congressman Ottinger, Statements) Joint-Congressional Proceedings, statements by Congressman

Richard Ottinger INFORMATION MEETING ON THE CULT PHENOMENON IN THE UNITED STATES, February 5, 1979, 318 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. P.11-13. of Transcript of Proceedings. Senator Bob Dole: Congressman Ottinger? Mr. Ottinger. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I will try to be brief because we have a great many witnesses today. I think the cult phenomenon presents many very serious human and legal problems. I suppose I have been historically as strong a civil libertarian as anybody. I have been prevailed upon by my friends in the Civil Liberties Union and my friends whom I greatly respect in the religious community to say we should not hold these hearings, the very inquiry into the problems surrounding cults is a violation of the First Amendment and is unfriendly to religion. I would just like to say I feel very strongly that isn't the case. Indeed, a failure to root out some of the illegal activities that have been alleged tend to have been covered by a religious cloak of protection, present a great deal of danger to our society and to religion itself. Our effort has to be to try to get at the illegal activities without infringing the basic religious freedom that's guaranteed by our Constitution. I don't think it's easy, but I do think it's necessary. The Jonestown massacre I suppose illustrates the extremes and the dangers that can be presented by the cult phenomenon. But we have had accusations made by parents that their children have been coerced into entering cults, that once there they have been physically and mentally abused, subjected to drugs; they have been physically prevented from returning to society; that immigration laws have been violated; that the laws with respect to weapons have been violated; that the tax laws have been violated. These were all very serious matters that I don't think we can, as a government, ignore because they are attempted to be cloaked in religious activity. They represent a tremendous amount of human suffering to the families of the people and the friends of the people who are involved. With respect to tax exemption, we have a situation where we are going to have to get into drawing the fine lines. I give you the example of the community in upstate New York where virtually the entire town is gaining tax-exempt status because every single property owner became ordained ministers by mail order from the Universal Life Church, which is based in California. People received ministry cerfificates by mail. Do we really believe that the First Amendment protects this kind of what appears to be out and outright fraud? Whether or not all the citizens of that town are indeed deep believers in the Universal Life Church, does the fact that they received a piece of paper in the mail mean that they should be excluded from taxes? So you have a whole range of very serious problems that do raise very serious First Amendment questions. I think that we are going tto have to be sensitive to

those questions and still try to root our the illegal activities that have been alleged. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.