California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has signed a bill that may block the state's attorney general from further court action against religious groups such as the Worldwide Church of God and Synanon, which both face charges of diversion of funds by organizational leaders.
The bill, passed earlier by the state legislature, is the latest in a legal tug-of-war over government regulation of religious bodies, set off by the reaction two years ago to the mass suicide of Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. The new measure cancels an earlier law that gave the attorney general broad investigative authority over nonprofit charitable and religious organizations.
Attorney General George Deukmejian said the new law "puts in serious jeopardy" the state's suit against the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God and its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. Under the earlier legislation, the state had put the financial affairs of the Worldwide Church in the hands of a state-appointed administrator while charges of financial irregularities were investigated. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to halt the California action against the church, Armstrong, who now lives in Arizona, recorporated the church in Colorado.
The new California legislation was strongly backed by a coalition of civil rights and religious groups, including the National Council of Churches.