First Amendment protects cults, too

Tuesday, May 13, 1997

With all of the publicity surrounding the mass suicide of
a cult in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., I am wondering if there is
a legal definition that separates religions from cults. Except
for the size of membership, they seem very much alike, and my
Webster's dictionary gives similar definitions. Does the First
Amendment apply equally to cults and religions?”

Julie White, Wausau, Wis.

Yes, the First Amendment guarantee of “free exercise”
of religion protects the right of all citizens to reach, hold,
exercise or change beliefs freely. Members of all religious groups,
including those that have been labeled “cults,” have
the First Amendment right to practice their faith free from governmental

Freedom of religion is not an unlimited right, however. The government
may decide it must prohibit some practices in the interest of
the common good. To cite an obvious example: If a particular religious
group advocated human sacrifice, then the state would surely have
a compelling interest in preventing that practice. A similar,
though more challenging case would be if a religious practice
(e.g., snake handling) were seen as potentially endangering
the lives of children. In such cases, the courts have recognized
that the government may step in to protect the welfare of minor

Generally, our courts have been careful about setting limits
on the free exercise of religion. Whenever the government is given
power to limit or prohibit a religious practice, a precedent is
set that may ultimately threaten the religious freedom of us all.

While the First Amendment makes no distinction among religious
groups, sociologists and scholars of religion do assign specific
definitions to such terms as “cult,” “sect”
and “denomination.” Some students of religion call a
religious movement with certain defining characteristics (e.g.,
a small, recently founded religious group led by a single charismatic
leader) a cult. Used in this way, “cult” is a neutral
term that simply describes a type of religious organization.

In popular usage, however, the term “cult” has a negative
meaning. It usually refers to an unpopular, new religious movement
that the media or others consider dangerous. As one historian
puts it, most people define a cult as “a religious group
that they don't like.” Many religious communities were called
cults at some time in their history. In 19th century America,
religious groups now widely viewed as mainstream American religions — Roman Catholics and Mormons, for example — were labeled “cults”
by some in the Protestant majority.

Given the negative associations attached to the word “cult,”
we should be clear about what we mean when we use it. Care should
be taken not to indiscriminately label new religious movements
“cults.” That does not mean that we shouldn't be concerned
about potential dangers and controversies. Events in Jonestown,
Waco, and now Rancho Santa Fe are tragic reminders that there
are reasons to be educated about these groups.

Unfortunately, many young people have little or no understanding
of traditional religion, which makes them vulnerable to some of
the superficial and even dangerous religious movements. This is
yet another argument for including study about religion in the
public school curriculum. Students who understand the great religious
ideas and events in history, who have read some of the world's
important scriptures, and who have been exposed to enduring religious
art and music have some foundation for making sense of the bewildering
variety of religious expressions in our culture. Religious literacy
should be an important part of a complete education.