B. Stett (assisted by A. Winters)
(Investigator 27, 1992
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.
and finally something worthwhile you really can do.
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.
of Religion and it's your responsibility or bad luck if you let a
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
the matter and
acted on your own responsibility. You didn't have to believe the sect
in the threat implied by their doctrine.
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
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
and so no coercion occurred.
Is being excommunicated comparable to unfair dismissal from employment?
No. You were not
in a contract of
employment. Even at the Headquarters of the sect or on the commune or
the workers have probably signed up – if they signed anything at all –
Is the prediction of paradise by a certain date comparable to advertising and selling a faulty product?
The Courts will
on the rightness
or wrongness of religious claims because this would be against public
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
that the repeated
use of false prophecy denotes wilful deceit and no longer sincere
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
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
against an established denomination, sect or cult where the leader(s)
personally pocket the donations anyway.
Is the sect a "Public Nuisance" by seeking to instil the fear of Armageddon and perhaps other damaging doctrines?
No. Not a
Nuisance" in the sense
intended by the law. "Offences Against Public Order" include
being drunk in a public place, begging, etc. Is a request for a
for a copy of a brochure or magazine of the sect an instance of
(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
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.
here for the ex cultist
to use against his former brethren. If a sect member happens to be a
educator, employer, or a seller of land or goods and discriminates
an "apostate" from the sect for having left the sect there would be a
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"?
nowadays, has to
be extremely disturbing to merit censure. Descriptions of Armageddon
not be much different, in their "Offensive" aspect, than a church
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
such was their belief. Other religions also believe that backsliders
be punished. Some cults teach the extinction of non members at
and others teach eternal torture or torment. As far as the Law is
the threats are empty.
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
of employment. The
sect member was simply practising his religion.
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
Treason there would
have to be overt acts as well as words, but not necessarily so.
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
It's your responsibility
to evaluate the claims of, and rewards offered by, an organization,
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
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
accepted the disciplinary
procedures and customs of the sect. It was your decision. Redress in
COMPENSATION FOR DISTRESS OF BEING SHUNNED
A Tort for this
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
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.
extent of the so-called "increasing light" and misled concerning the
(including threat of expulsion and shunning) that would be put on you
"encourage" you into "loyal obedience". Regarding these points see
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
get a reduced sentence
if you physically attacked sect-members once, or burned their meeting
down on one occasion, while drunk. If, however, you tried to make an
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
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.
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".
or cult you left
doubtless has disreputable
traits but is nevertheless a legitimate religious organization. If
held it responsible for consequences of its doctrines where would this
principle stop? Could the Catholic Hierarchy be prosecuted for not
the Catholic Church sooner or for its opposition to contraception?