40 Years in America

Legal Gains

New Hope News, April 1, 1977 proclaims the California victory.

Rev. Moon regarded the inability of the American movement to increase its membership to 30,000 following the victory of Washington Monument, to become self-sufficient, and to become strong and diversified as internal reasons for continued opposition and the prolongation of the American providence.

Externally, ongoing opposition hampered his ability to pursue objectives elsewhere and provide the solution to what he described as God’s "three major headaches" -- communism, the decline of Christianity, and the immorality of contemporary youth. As he later put it, "because of the court battles and other opposition, the dispensational moment was delayed." The movement spent millions of dollars defending itself between 1977-85. Apart from monetary outlays, government investigations, "anti-cult" legislation and legal battles demanded investments of time and energy that could have gone elsewhere.

Contending with opposition and, in some cases, defending themselves was a major preoccupation of the movement’s top leadership during this period. Rev. Moon himself was subject to government subpoena and prosecution, eventually spending the final thirteen months of the period in federal prison. Rev. Moon’s conviction and imprisonment on tax evasion charges dominated press coverage of the movement at the time and has continued to be a major point of reference in accounts of the Unification Church during the 1980s. However, this should not overshadow the movement’s very real gains. In 1977, the Unification Church had a very tenuous existence in the United States. Newspapers and all manner of enemies attacked the movement with impunity.

Members were subject to forcible removal and "deprogramming" through court-sanctioned conservatorship rulings. Hundreds of local municipalities refused to grant solicitation permits to church fundraisers or re-wrote regulations to keep the movement out. The church was denied tax-exempt status in New York City, and its foreign members were denied the right to enter the country as missionaries on the same basis as members of other churches. Each of these situations were reversed between 1977-85. Although embroiled in near-constant litigation, the church gained gradual recognition as a bona-fide religion with tax-exemption privileges, public solicitation rights, and access to missionary visas. It also was able to extend constitutional protections to its members and successfully press for action against deprogrammers. By 1985, the church had vindicated its position and existed on solid legal footing in the United States.

The most immediate problem faced by the church in 1977 was the protection of its members. The courts had clamped down on illegal kidnappings and "deprogrammings," but a new and more insidious form of "legal deprogramming" followed whereby sympathetic judges granted temporary conservatorships or guradianships, usually for thirty days, during which time parents could forcibly remove their adult children from the church and turn them over to paid deprogrammers or "deprogramming centers." Conservators, according to common practice, were persons appointed by a court to protect other persons who were unable to take care of themselves or their property -- typically, the senile and elderly. However, this device was seized upon by parents and professional deprogrammers in 1976-77 as a legal means to extricate their offspring from membership in the Unification Church as well as from other religious groups. First, parents testified about abrupt personality changes in their children.

Then psychiatrists and psychologists, most of whom were leading lights in the "anti-cult" movement, were called upon to testify about the young people’s erratic condition, citing "dilated pupils from lack of sleep, memory impairment, frozen emotions, and robot-like responses." Finally, former members described alleged brainwashing that they had undergone while in the church. Ordinarily, these proceedings were conducted ex parte, with no one in the courtroom or judge’s chambers to represent the other side. Afterwards, conservatorship papers were served by police on unsuspecting members. By April 1977, parents of about ninety members in more than twenty states had used the tactic successfully.

The conservatorship issue exploded in San Francisco where twenty-four conservatorships were granted during the last half of 1976. California conservatorships law was especially vulnerable to broader application as the relevant statute included provisions for those "likely to be deceived by artful and designing persons." The great bulk of these conservatorships were directed against the Oakland Family. In early 1977, representatives of the Tucson, Arizona based Freedom of Thought Foundation, which had emerged as the leading Western U.S. deprogramming center, escalated their efforts, preparing standardized forms and seeking multiple conservatorships at a single hearing. This precipitated a confrontation in March 1977 between five sets of parents and five Oakland Family members who anticipated being served and who with church support retained legal counsel to fight their would-be conservators. Dubbed the "faithful five," their conservatorship hearing generated nationwide publicity and lasted for several weeks. Psychiatrists testified for both sides, and members attempted to show their "emotional effect" had not become blunted by playing original music compositions and reading poetry. In the end, Superior Court Judge Lee Vavuris decided for the parents, explaining,

We’re talking about the essence of life here, mother, father and children.... One of the reasons I made the decision...[is] I could see the love here of a parent for his child, and I don’t... have to go beyond that.... It is never-ending.... A child is a child even though the parent may be 90 and the child is 60.

Vavuris’ decision touched off a firestorm of editorial protest. More importantly, the California State Court of Appeals stayed Judge Vavuris’ conservatorship order two weeks after it was rendered and six months later reversed it, propounding "stringent criteria for the granting of such petitions in the future." As one commentator noted, "Judges all over the country became more circumspect in granting temporary conservatorships in ex-parte hearings...and without a definite indication of overwhelming incapacity on the part of the devotee." This was too late for the "faithful five," four of whom left the church and who, thereafter, were re-dubbed in some press accounts as the "faithless four." Nevertheless, the California decision significantly reduced the risk of members being subjected to legalized "deprogrammings."

Other decisions vindicated the church’s positions and put deprogrammers increasingly on the defensive. In Ward v. Conner (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld on appeal a lower court decision allowing a church member to bring suit against thirty-one people, including his family members and others hired to break his faith. The court established an important precedent in holding that Unification Church members were entitled to the same civil rights protections that the law grants to racial minorities. In Molko and Leal v. The Holy Spirit Association (1983), the California Court of Appeals dismissed a case brought by two "deprogrammed" former members who claimed that they were falsely imprisoned and defrauded by the church through "mind control" and "systematic manipulation." The lower court determined that neither person had been physically restrained or mentally impaired at the time they joined and that the law would not permit either "to avoid the consequences of their decision."

The appeals court criticized "expert opinions" on brainwashing, held that to impose liability on the church would mean that "any disaffected adherent" could bring suit, thereby leading to court entanglement with religion, and noted that "the techniques used to recruit and indoctrinate [the] plaintiffs...[were] not materially different from those employed by other organizations." Finally, in Columbrito v. Kelly (1985), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District awarded attorney’s fees and costs to a church member who discontinued a lawsuit against a deprogrammer, assuring access to the court by those asserting religious liberty claims without the threat of attorney’s fees being awarded. The court, in this instance, also criticized the "odious" practice of deprogramming.

Having been denied in the courts, anti-church activists turned to state legislatures. In both 1980 and 1981, the New York State Legislature passed the Lasher Bill, which allowed for temporary guardianships of up to 60 days, only to have it twice vetoed by then Governor Hugh Carey on constitutional grounds. In 1982, a Kansas bill that allowed judges to decide whether a subject of any age required deprogramming due to an "abrupt and drastic change of lifestyle" passed the State House but died in the Senate. Several other states considered anti-conversion legislation or proposals for investigations of the church and other groups. None passed. This reflected a broad-based change in public opinion. By the mid-1980s, deprogrammers rather than the groups they preyed upon were struggling to survive.

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