In 1992, Steffi Rausch, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park, was asked by her resident adviser to join the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), an Evangelical Christian group that has been banned on several college campuses in the country, allegedly for using mind-control tactics on its followers.
Rausch, now 28, said she left after several months during which she was made to prepare "sin lists" and banish all thoughts about the opposite sex. But when she complained to university administrators about what she thought was inappropriate action on the part of her adviser, she says they didn't act.
Hana Lyn Colvin, 16, a student at Glen Burnie High School, has been raised by her parents in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Hana, who has a 4.3 grade-point average and calls herself a typical teenager, says she has "flourished" because of her religious beliefs. She's worried that if schools act against groups such as the Unification Church, her right to freedom of religion will be infringed.
Rausch and Colvin are among those who have made their voices heard at meetings of a special task force set up by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to look into activities of certain groups at the state's public schools and universities.
The task force's recommendations on how the state's public campuses should handle what the committee calls destructive groups could eventually lead to legislation affecting the campus activities of certain groups.
The 17-member task force, headed by University System of Maryland President William T. Wood, will present its recommendations to the governor in a report due Sept. 30.
The task force was set up under a House of Delegates resolution passed last year at the urging of worried parents. The resolution estimated that there are "as many as 2,000 cults operating within the United States with 4 million to 6 million members." Students, it noted, are "particularly vulnerable to cult recruitment because they are often grappling with becoming independent, overwhelmed with new responsibilities and relationships, adjusting to new environments."
In its meetings over the last two months, the task force has heard testimony from more than 100 individuals, whose concerns include First Amendment rights and the need to protect students on campuses.
Some, such as Michael Delp, a University of Maryland student who is a member of the ICOC, decried restrictions against any group. "No one forced or coerced me into joining the group," said Delp, 24, who says he attends church three times a week, goes to school and lives a normal life.
Jonathan Abady, a lawyer from New York who spoke on behalf of the ICOC, said the group is composed of students and professionals--"people respectful of the views of others."
Abady, whose law firm is fighting a case involving the ICOC and the State University of New York, said it is the courts and not legislators who have the primary role to regulate groups. "Legislators," he said, "should not act as parents."
Members of the Seventh-day Adventists and Unification Church have filed a federal lawsuit in Baltimore against the task force, saying it is violating constitutional rights and conducting a "religious inquisition." One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, Unification Church member Alex Colvin, said: "The resolution is unconstitutional. The state does not have the power to determine what a religion is."
But Les Baker, one of the parents who petitioned the General Assembly, says the problem is extensive at state university campuses in Towson, Bowie and College Park, where his daughter, whom he doesn't want identified, was recruited to the ICOC when she was 19.
Baker says the university needs to recognize that students should be helped in making better choices about their participation in groups. In a list of recommendations presented to the task force, he proposed education for resident assistants, student leaders and student affairs staff members; a prohibition of recruitment on campus; and a thorough investigation of complaints about cults from students and parents.
His feelings are shared by Denny Gulick, a professor of mathematics at College Park who has been working with former members of cults on campus since 1984. He believes that the faculty and staff at universities ought to be educated about cults so they can better help students.
Gulick says that 50 to 100 of the 36,000 students at College Park are involved with three to five destructive groups that are currently active on the campus.
A survey done by the Department of Resident Life at College Park in 1997 showed that 35 percent of the students on campus had been invited to join cults, and 21 percent knew someone who had joined a cult.
The University of Maryland at College Park, like most other universities in the country today, informs new members on campus about cults. A pamphlet titled "Friends Are Everywhere" is distributed to students and an introductory course for freshmen discusses cults on campus using a video titled "Cults--Saying No Under Pressure." Counseling services are also available for students, said Warren Kelley, executive assistant to the vice president for student affairs at College Park and a member of the task force.
Although private colleges in the area, such as American University, have banned the ICOC, public institutions such as the University of Maryland operate under a different set of rules. "This is a public institution and our campus is a public place," Kelley said.
Also, he said, if they ban certain groups, they might unwittingly ban some legitimate ones, too. "We have to take action that doesn't violate anyone's rights."
Kelley said the best way for the task force to handle the matter would be through education. "We have to try to educate students to be more perceptive about which groups to participate in," he said.