Equal Protection for Unpopular Sects


This Colloquium is entitled “Alternative Religions” but that term has not been defined. I assume, and this paper is based upon that assumption, that “alternative religions” are associations that are popularly called cults. Cult, however, is not a legal term, and for a definition we therefore must look to other disciplines.

In their introduction to Religious Movements in Contemporary America, sociologists Zaretsky and Leone suggest twenty-six indicia of cultism, including the following: “Most of the churches are offshoots of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. Some are imported religions and all of these are generically related to groups brought into the United States during the nineteenth century.” “Many of the groups have developed from each other through doctrinal and social schisms.” “Within recent history these groups have faced persecution from society and attempted to resolve their problems in court.” Other telltale indicia are that the groups are organized around charismatic individuals and that they often have rigid standards of membership and a clear set of rules which, if violated, lead to expulsion. They claim not to be just another competing religion and feel that they alone have constant contact with the Divine.

These claims and doctrines, however, are hardly restricted to cults. They are much the same as those of established and respected faiths. Christianity and Islam developed from the Hebrew religion through “doctrinal and social schisms.” And did not the Hebrews and the Christians assert that only through their respective priests could there be contact with the Divine?

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