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Cults and the Law: A Discussion of the Legality of Alleged Cult Activities

NCJ Number
Behavioral Sciences and the Law Volume: 10 Issue: 1 Dated: (Winter 1992) Pages: 117-140
J R P Ogloff; J E Pfeifer
Date Published
24 pages
After reporting on the results of a survey of United States and Canadian samples to determine public attitudes toward religious cults, this article discusses constitutional issues involved in attempts to legislate against specific types of cult activity and beliefs.
Survey participants included 87 students from an introductory psychology class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Participants in the Canadian sample consisted of 195 students from an introductory psychology class at Simon Fraser University. The survey solicited information on the existence of cults and satanic cults, attitudes toward cults, and whether or not respondents had ever been a member of a cult or had been approached to join a cult. Definition of a cult was purposely absent from the survey, since definitions of a cult are subjective. The survey indicates that belief in and the fear of cults in general and satanic cults in particular is great. Such anxiety regarding new emerging religious groups is typical throughout history. Many established religious institutions began as small nontraditional religious groups. A review of the law concerning the free exercise of religion indicates that several contemporary, established religious groups have been referred to as cults (for example, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons). Many of the activities in which the public believes cults are engaged are not illegal and are, in fact, protected from government sanction by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The law must be careful not to prohibit religious beliefs, but rather must focus on actual behaviors that harm people. There is no indication that current laws are inadequate to protect society from any harmful behaviors that may stem from cult beliefs. 4 tables and 108 footnotes


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