Court upholds ban on cult leader’s contacting followers

Saturday, August 18, 2001

MIAMI — A cult leader linked to a series of random killings cannot have any contact with his followers after his upcoming early release from prison unless his parole office approves, a federal judge has ruled.

Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who was convicted of federal racketeering for his connection to the killings, had sought an injunction against the U.S. Parole Commission’s decision to ban communications with followers as a condition of his parole. Yahweh received an 18-year sentence in 1992 but will be released early because of exemplary conduct.

His attorneys had argued in federal court last week that the strict conditions of his parole violated his constitutional right to religious freedom.

But U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, in his Aug. 15 opinion, said the commission was justified in its decision because Yahweh “poses an extreme risk to the community,” according to a Miami Herald story yesterday.

The government “may reach its hand farther into the religious freedoms of a parolee than of an innocent citizen,” if it has a “compelling and legitimate interest” and “reaches no farther than it must,” Moore said, according to the Associated Press.

Defense attorney Jon May, however, called the judge’s ruling a victory for Yahweh because it sent “a clear message to the parole commission that it cannot act arbitrarily and capriciously in denying a reasonable request of Yahweh Ben Yahweh to have contact with members of his faith.”

May told in an e-mail interview that Yahweh had sought the injunction because the initial parole restrictions would have prohibited “any contact” with his spiritual followers. With this ruling, the judge has instructed the parole commission at least to consider Yahweh’s requests to communicate with his followers, May said.

“So if he makes a request that’s reasonable and it’s denied, [the parole commission] will have to answer to the court,” he said. “I recognize that this judge achieved an appropriate balance, and we’ll try to work with them,” May added.

U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis agreed, the AP story said. “The Court balanced the goals of protecting the public interest and assuring that First Amendment rights are protected.”

The cult was blamed for 23 murders before Yahweh was imprisoned in 1990. He was accused of dispatching his closest followers in 1986 to kill “white devils” and return with body parts as proof. He was charged in three murders, acquitted in one, and the other two cases were dropped.

Yahweh reportedly wants to retake his leadership position with the cult, which attracted about 1,000 people to a gathering last year in Montreal. His parole runs through 2008.