CAN YOU TAKE YOUR CULT TO COURT?

B. Stett (assisted by A. Winters)

(Investigator 27, 1992 November)
 
 

INJUSTICE?

You joined a sect or a cult. You gave up your education, or house, or career to go evangelizing because you were told Armageddon, the "Tribulation" or the "Second Coming" was close. You gave tithes and/or large donations. You worked hard for the sect perhaps on its commune or farm for little or no pay. Perhaps a relative died because you insisted on "No blood!" Perhaps you're sick or physically handicapped because you, or a relative on your behalf, rejected a vaccination or tissue transplant or other medical treatment and this was according to sect doctrine. Finally you criticised the false prophecies of the sect, or reversals in their other "Bible truths", and got excommunicated for it.

Now you're shunned, treated as a leper, called "apostate" and "satanic". Your former sectarian friends shun the business in which you work so that it goes bankrupt.

Can the Law help you to get compensation, or other satisfaction, from the sect for all their "injustice" to you?

We're going to consider some things you might be thinking of taking the sect you left to court for and why your legal action either won't reach court or will fail if it does.

Afterwards we'll consider something illegal and finally something worthwhile you really can do.
 
 

POSSIBLE LEGAL ACTIONS EVALUATED

BREACH OF CONTRACT

You worked for your cult on the understanding that your reward would be eternal health and paradise by a certain date such as 1942, 1975, or "this generation", etc. The cult failed to deliver and therefore broke the contract and you want compensation.

Under British law an illegal contract cannot be enforced by the Courts. A Contract which envisages the overthrow of the Queen and Government to bring in paradise would be treason and therefore illegal.

The American Constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion and it's your responsibility or bad luck if you let a religion deceive you.
 

EXTORTION

Demanding Money or services with menaces. You felt that the continuous prophecies of Armageddon or "the tribulation" to occur "soon", "just ahead", "imminent", etc were like a gun to your head. That is why you paid tithes, or gave up college studies, or career, or marriage plans and why you donated time in evangelizing and in working on the commune or other property of the sect. Have the sect leaders committed an offence they can be put on trial for?

No. You had free choice in the matter and acted on your own responsibility. You didn't have to believe the sect or in the threat implied by their doctrine.
 

COERCION

You felt coerced into giving all you could to the sect by fear of death at Armageddon.

The same comment as for EXTORTION. The Courts would not regard the threat of death at Armageddon as a real threat. If you were coerced to act contrary to your best interest by being threatened with a gun, that would be a criminal offence even if the gun is later proven not to have been loaded. A "reasonable" man threatened by a gun would reasonably assume it to be loaded. If "threatened" with Armageddon, however, the "reasonable man" should see it as an empty threat and so no coercion occurred.
 

UNFAIR DISMISSAL:

Is being excommunicated comparable to unfair dismissal from employment?

No. You were not involved in a contract of employment. Even at the Headquarters of the sect or on the commune or farm, the workers have probably signed up – if they signed anything at all – as volunteers.
 

FALSE ADVERTISING

Is the prediction of paradise by a certain date comparable to advertising and selling a faulty product?

The Courts will not rule on the rightness or wrongness of religious claims because this would be against public policy.
 

DECEIT IN THE SUPPLY OF GOODS

The (Australian) Trade Practices Act of 1974 forbids misleading or deceitful conduct with the supply of goods. A person who suffers loss from relying on deceptive statements can claim damages. Can a sect or cult be viewed as deceitful in not supplying the "goods" of paradise, eternal life, peace on Earth, an end to sickness, and/or whatever else, within the dates they specified?

No. You'd have to prove the deception was wilful which would be hard to do. Also it would involve a Court ruling that a religious doctrine is right or wrong and this the Courts won't do.

You might like to reason that the repeated use of false prophecy denotes wilful deceit and no longer sincere error and this in turn would suggest that religious doctrine is being used as a cloak for a money-making or power-gaining racket. Such an argument might work if an action for fraud is brought against an individual doing his own thing and unconnected with an established sect. But it won't succeed against an established denomination, sect or cult where the leader(s) don't personally pocket the donations anyway.
 

PUBLIC NUISANCE

Is the sect a "Public Nuisance" by seeking to instil the fear of Armageddon and perhaps other damaging doctrines?

No. Not a "Public Nuisance" in the sense intended by the law. "Offences Against Public Order" include prize-fighting, being drunk in a public place, begging, etc. Is a request for a donation for a copy of a brochure or magazine of the sect an instance of "begging"? (A person guilty of the offence of begging is liable to a fine of up to $200 in Australia.) This is no more a case of begging than when other denominations or charities collect donations. "Begging" is an offence committed by an individual seeking returns for his own use and by definition cannot be committed by an established religion.
 

DISCRIMINATION IN RELIGION

The (Australian) Equal Opportunity legislation (1984) deals with discrimination on grounds of race, physical impairment, gender and religion in the areas of employment, education, accommodation, provision of goods, clubs, and associations and sale of land.

Again, there's not much here for the ex cultist to use against his former brethren. If a sect member happens to be a landlord, educator, employer, or a seller of land or goods and discriminates against an "apostate" from the sect for having left the sect there would be a case to answer.
 

INDECENT BEHAVIOUR:

It is an offence to publish "Indecent or Offensive Material". The offence is in South Australia a "summary offence" and punishable by a penalty of up to $10,000 or six months imprisonment. Are lurid descriptions of Armageddon "Offensive Material"?

No. Offensive Material, nowadays, has to be extremely disturbing to merit censure. Descriptions of Armageddon would not be much different, in their "Offensive" aspect, than a church sermon on hellfire.
 

THREATENED WITH BODILY HARM:

Perhaps you originally joined the sect or stayed a member so long because the emphasis on Armageddon made you fear for your life.

The same comments apply here as for EXTORTION and COERCION.

You joined the sect in the knowledge that such was their belief. Other religions also believe that backsliders will be punished. Some cults teach the extinction of non members at Armageddon and others teach eternal torture or torment. As far as the Law is concerned the threats are empty.
 

INSURANCE

The publications of the sect perhaps call full-time proselytising for the sect a "career". Could a full-time preacher claim workers compensation for sickness or accident caused during "work"?

No. It is not a contract of employment. The sect member was simply practising his religion.
 

TREASON

In British law Treason is a criminal offence for which you can be prosecuted by the Crown. It's not something for which you can perform a citizen's arrest. A plot to overthrow the Queen or State would be Treason.

Suppose a sermon includes the words: "In a few years Jesus will overthrow all government and this will include the Queen; afterwards we the saints will rule the world." You could swear out an affidavit to a justice concerning what you heard which you consider treasonable. The justice may then issue an arrest warrant if he thinks there is a case. The person who gave the sermon would then be arrested by the police and brought before a magistrate who will decide whether to commit him to the Supreme Court to be tried for Treason.

Normally, to be tried for Treason there would have to be overt acts as well as words, but not necessarily so. However, in a country which, like Australia, is committed to religious pluralism a trial for Treason on the grounds described is a very unlikely event. A Democracy is measured by toleration.
 

TORT FOR NEGLIGENCE:

A tort or civil wrong is an offence against an individual – other than breach of contract – which requires compensation or restitution. Suppose the sect didn't inform you of their record of false predictions and other errors when you first attended meetings but gave a glossed self-serving portrayal of their history. You feel that had they not been "negligent" by omitting relevant facts you would never have joined the sect and wasted so much of your life.

You joined up by choice! It's your responsibility to evaluate the claims of, and rewards offered by, an organization, club or religion which you are thinking of joining.
 

TORT FOR DECEIT:

The sect and in particular the individual(s) who indoctrinated you lied about the history and doctrines of the sect.

Same comment as for NEGLIGENCE. The Courts won't rule on religious doctrine.
 

TORT FOR SLANDER (DEFAMATION)

You were excommunicated and shunned. Sect publications call ex members "evil", "like Satan", "false", "wicked", "deceivers", etc. Your former friends now treat you as if these labels truly and genuinely describe you.

When you joined you accepted the disciplinary procedures and customs of the sect. It was your decision. Redress in Court won't work.
 

COMPENSATION FOR DISTRESS OF BEING SHUNNED

A Tort for this will fail. When you joined the sect you accepted its standards. You don't have a legal right to be talked to anyway and therefore the Courts can't make the sect-members stop shunning you.
 

COMPENSATION FOR FINANCIAL LOSS, PAIN, SUFFERING

Perhaps you followed sectarian advice to sell your house because Armageddon was "imminent". Perhaps you were persuaded to give up career or schooling. Perhaps the alleged nearness of "the end" moved you to give large donations to the sect. Perhaps you rejected medical treatment according to sect doctrine and on the advice of the Elders or Pastors. The consequence may be permanent illness – and yet later the doctrine was changed. Perhaps a relative even died. Perhaps you obeyed constant urging to "exert yourself vigorously" in preaching or collecting money and the pressure on you led to illness or breakdown. Can you claim compensation?

No. If a relative died for a doctrine or you yourself have injuries for following the doctrine and the doctrine was later changed it's tough luck. The sect leaders probably warned about "new truth" and "increasing light". A reasonable person would not have obeyed advice to his own detriment.

You were doubtless misled concerning the extent of the so-called "increasing light" and misled concerning the pressure (including threat of expulsion and shunning) that would be put on you to "encourage" you into "loyal obedience". Regarding these points see comments under DECEIT and NEGLIGENCE.
 

TAKING THE LAW INTO YOUR OWN HANDS

Apparently there is nothing you can legally do to get compensation from the sect or get the leaders or members punished for allegedly ruining a large part of our life.

What if you therefore seek revenge by thumping sect members around at their conventions or perhaps burn down their meeting places or perhaps interrupt meetings by shouting through a megaphone from outside?

In South Australia you could be imprisoned for two years if you disrupt a religious meeting. If you assault the Elders or Pastors and thump them around you may get up to three years. This could go to five years if you cause bodily harm.

Could you claim provocation as a defence at your trial and claim you were provoked by the lies they deceived you with and by the shunning and labelling you endured? To get a reduced sentence on grounds of "diminished responsibility" you have to show a sudden loss of self-control on your part. There must be no evidence that you planned or intended the attack. It might help if you were drunk during your unlawful conduct.

You might if you're lucky get a reduced sentence if you physically attacked sect-members once, or burned their meeting place(s) down on one occasion, while drunk. If, however, you tried to make an ongoing habit of it you would soon have a permanent home in prison. This would mean one less "apostate" for the sect to worry about.

WHAT CAN YOU LEGALLY DO?

If the law can't assist you and if acting illegally results in your own detriment what else can you do to express your disapproval of the sect you were once a member of? You don't necessarily have to act out of revenge. Your motive might be to help your fellow victims who are still in the sect.

A lot of former sect-members do what they can to expose the errors, cover-ups and methods of the sect. Some start "cult buster" groups and may even be sponsored by another sect or cult! Some become members of a mainline church and only speak against their former sect as opportunity comes. Some write books about the sect. Some send regular letters to sect headquarters, to sect Elders, sect members or to newspaper editors. Some stage peaceful protests with placards outside sect conventions or meeting places. Some reprint and circulate the sect publications which contain the false prophecies or other discarded doctrines!

Your efforts to legally counteract a sect or cult will only amount to a "pin prick". Remember, each convert into the sect probably cost thousands of hours of preaching or thousands of dollars in advertising. Perhaps the cost of getting one person out will be equally great. However, hundreds of anti-cult ministries are helping out and perhaps some cults will be noticeably affected.

CONCLUSIONS

People are responsible for their own decisions. By the legal test of a "reasonable man" a person has himself to blame for perceived detriment resulting from being (or having been) a member of a sect. The law cannot help you except in rare instances.

Striking back at the sect by "taking the law into your own hands" may feel satisfying but would be criminal. Such a course is not to be recommended. Indeed it would strengthen sect members in their belief that ex-members are "like Satan".

The sect or cult you left doubtless has disreputable traits but is nevertheless a legitimate religious organization. If courts held it responsible for consequences of its doctrines where would this principle stop? Could the Catholic Hierarchy be prosecuted for not liberalising the Catholic Church sooner or for its opposition to contraception?


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