t was the kind of hearing most legislators dread: a long list of witnesses marching before them to tell emotional tales, personal horror stories that seem to go on forever, often having little to do with the legislation being discussed.
But Wednesday evening, when the Judiciary Committee of the House of Delegates heard testimony on a bill which, if passed, would provide for court-appointed intermediaries in disputes between families and religious cult groups, most of the committee remained in the packed hearing room for 3 1/2 hours, listening attentively.
The bill, introduced by Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) would allow a court to appoint a guardian for 45 days when families could produce evidence that a family member was under some kind of mind control.
"To the casual observer," Ruben said, "it is easy, too easy, to dismiss those involved as poor lost souls, casting about for some certainty in their lives, gullible and easy prey for the soft touch. Judging from the people involved whom I have known, if these are lost souls, then we are a lost race."
Ruben was the first of 32 witnesses, all of whom provided emotional, sometimes wrenching testimony on both sides of the question. The committee heard former cult members tell of being subjected to mind control and having deprogramming forced on them. They heard a psychiatrist, who said there are more than 4,000 cults in this country, explain the cult phenomenon.
Current cult members defended their groups, claiming the bill, as one of them put it, "is proof that society judges us to be guilty because we are not members of main-line religions." And a member of the American Civil Liberties Union declared the bill unconstitutional as a violation of First Amendment rights.
Esther Dietz, of Silver Spring, whose daughter joined the Divine Light Mission eight years ago, described the nightmare which led to her conviction, along with her husband, on charges of kidnaping their daughter in Colorado. Coolly, she quoted medical reports on mind control and the cult movement. But finally, she looked up from her typed testimony, looked at committee members and said, "Must we wait for yet another Jonestown before we act?"
Detractors of the bill claimed it could easily be abused. "I'm sure back in Rome, the Christians were looked on as a cult," said Jim Wright, head of the Family Protection Lobby, an antiabortion group.
Michael W. Jenkins, director of the Maryland branch of the Unification Church, run by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, labeled the bill, "a violation of religious liberty every step of the way." He suggested alternatives, such as a safe house that exists in San Francisco, where police provide a neutral ground for parents to meet with their children.
The witness who brought complete quiet to the room was Maggie Shivers, a 28-year-old junior at Yale University. She told of joining the Divine Light Mission at age 19 and rising through its ranks during her six years as a member.
"I believed the Guru Maharaj Ji was the Lord and I was created to serve him," Shivers said. "I thought deprogramming would be worse than death because I had been told I would shatter into a million pieces if I ever left. I was in psychological bondage. Even after I knew about the Guru's 30 cars and his Boeing 707 with gold seat-belts, I rationalized it."
Shivers was near tears. "There are children still there, even if they are adults in age, who cannot cry for help. They cannot communicate at all. We have to start . . ." Shivers' voice broke. She could not finish her testimony.
Ruben, the measure's sponsor, said there is no law of this kind in the U.S., although bills on the subject are before 13 state legislatures. But following the hearing, committee chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery) termed the measure "drastic."