Church Can Be Sued on Recruiting : Beliefs Protected but Not Conduct, Justices Rule
In a major ruling on the separation of church and state, the California Supreme Court held Monday that a religious organization may be sued for fraud for allegedly “brainwashing” unknowing recruits into joining the church.
The justices ruled 6 to 1 that two former members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church can proceed to trial with claims that they were tricked by recruiters who denied they were church members and then used subtle “mind-control” techniques to obtain conversions.
The court majority, in an opinion by Justice Stanley Mosk, said that while religious beliefs were entitled to full protection, religiously motivated conduct was subject to restriction by the state.
There was no constitutional barrier to a fraud suit “for deceiving non-members into subjecting themselves, without their knowledge or consent, to coercive persuasion,” Mosk said.
Allowing such suits would not intrude on the beliefs of church members, Mosk said, and would pose only a “marginal” burden on religiously motivated recruiting practices.
Protection From Fraud
Any such impediment to the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion was outweighed by the state’s interest in protecting unknowing recruits from fraud and the possible risks of “brainwashing,” the court said.
“While some individuals who experience coercive persuasion emerge unscathed, many others develop serious and sometimes irreversible physical and psychiatric disorders, up to and including schizophrenia, self-mutilation and suicide,” Mosk wrote.
The court ruled also that one of the two former “Moonies” in the suit could sue to recover a $6,000 donation he was allegedly deceived into making to the church.
In a sharp dissent, state appellate Judge Carl West Anderson, sitting by special appointment, said the ruling was “bad legal policy” that “unnecessarily projects the court into the arena of divining the truth or falsity of religious beliefs.”
Anderson said that while the court could well deplore the practice of “heavenly deception"--a purported church doctrine allowing recruiters to lie to spread Moon’s teachings--it “must resist the temptation to tread into this theological thicket.”
An attorney for the church, Jeffrey S. Ross of San Francisco, said the ruling would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This decision puts someone who wants to speak about his religious beliefs at peril,” Ross said. Unless overturned, he said, the ruling could open the door to “a prolifera tion of litigation” by disenchanted former members of any religious group.
Ross added, however, that if the case eventually goes to trial, he expects the church to prevail because, he said, the allegations of fraud and coercive persuasion are false.
Stanley F. Leal, a Sunnyvale lawyer who represented his daughter as one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he was “totally delighted” by the decision, which he said appeared to be the first of its kind by the highest court in a state.
Leal denied that the ruling would require recruiters from churches to identify themselves before approaching potential members or otherwise impede efforts to win new members.
‘Cannot Be Fraudulent’
“All this says is that people cannot be fraudulent in their recruiting practices,” he said. “They can’t represent themselves as something other than what they are.”
The attorney said that when the case comes to trial the plaintiffs will seek compensatory and punitive damages, which could run into millions of dollars.
The case had drawn wide interest from church officials, academics and others concerned over its implications for religious freedom and the controversial activities of “cult” groups.
The National Council of Churches of Christ and other organizations backing the Unification Church contended in briefs to the justices that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would open the way for judicial regulation of religious recruitment and conversion efforts, violating the separation of church and state.
On the other side, several cult-awareness groups, including one sponsored by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, argued that the courts should intervene to protect the public from fraudulent or coercive recruiting practices by a church, just as they would any other group.
Monday’s ruling represented a stunning legal victory for David Molko, now 37, and Tracy Leal, 28, the two former church members who brought suit over what they said were fraudulent actions by church recruiters in 1979.
Molko, a law school graduate and the lead plaintiff in the case, charged that he was approached on a street in San Francisco by two young men who subsequently invited him to a discussion of world affairs by a group they called the Creative Community Project.
‘Mind Control’ Alleged
Molko claimed that he was then enticed to go to a remote encampment, where he fell victim to sophisticated “mind-control” techniques that deprived him of the will to leave. Among other things, he said, he was subject to rigid indoctrination sessions, was never left alone and was kept isolated from the outside world.
Only late in the process, he said, did he learn he was among followers of the Unification Church, despite their earlier claims to the contrary.
Molko eventually joined in church activities, raising money, recruiting new members and contributing $6,000 of his own funds before he was forcibly abducted by his parents and “deprogrammed,” he said.
Joined by Leal, another college student who made similar allegations against the church, Molko filed a civil suit charging fraud, infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. In their suit, Molko and Leal presented statements by two psychological experts describing the church as a “cult” and likening its methods to indoctrination techniques used on American prisoners during the Korean War.
The church denied the allegations of “brainwashing” and fraud--and argued that even if the charges were true, a church’s recruiting efforts were protected from such suits by the First Amendment.
In May, 1985, a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, and the next year a state Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal, concluding that such suits intruded on freedom of religion.
Appellate Judge J. Anthony Kline, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, observed that courts could not analyze church recruiting techniques without conducting a constitutionally forbidden inquiry into the authenticity of church doctrine.
Mosk’s opinion reinstating the suit was joined by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justices Allen E. Broussard, John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman. Justice Edward A. Panelli did not participate; his place in the case was taken by Anderson.
Mosk concluded that while a claim of false imprisonment could not be brought in this instance, Molko and Leal could go to trial to try to prove allegations of fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and--in Molko’s case--restitution of the $6,000 he donated to the church.
The court conceded that the “brainwashing” theory was a controversial one and emphasized that the justices were not deciding whether it was scientifically valid. But the fact that there are differing views on its validity at least allows Molko and Leal to make their claims before a jury, the court said.
On another aspect to the case, the court ruled that the church could bring a civil rights suit charging conspiracy against Neil Maxwell for the alleged abduction and “deprogramming” of Molko.