A state task force investigating cult activity on Maryland campuses has recommended that universities warn students to watch out for potentially harmful organizations and require outside groups to register before coming on campus to recruit.
Yet the task force determined that cults are not a big problem at state colleges and recommended no other major policy changes.
In a report released last month, the task force said that although there have been a few "heartbreaking" cases in which Maryland students have been lured into harmful cult-like activities, such cases are relatively few and far between.
"Most students are able to sort through their decisions without much difficulty," said William T. Wood, a member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and chairman of the task force.
The task force shied away from even defining "cult," choosing instead to focus on all groups "causing harm" to university communities. Many free-speech advocates say the term "cult" is used unfairly to ostracize new offshoot religious groups.
The report pleased some anti-cult activists who lobbied for the creation of the task force. At the same time, it assuaged some of the concerns of religious groups that had viewed the investigation as a direct attack on their constitutional right to organize.
The group was chartered by the state legislature last year in response to complaints from a few parents who said their children had been aggressively recruited by a religious organization at the University of Maryland at College Park, which they said bullied new members into devoting more and more time and money to the group.
State lawmakers also were inspired by cult-related tragedies such as the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate disciples in California in 1997 and the subway poison-gas attack by a Tokyo cult.
During four months of meetings, the task force heard from a variety of witnesses. A foreign student who entered College Park on a full scholarship testified that when he tried to exit one group, "they put so much pressure on him that he developed severe psychological distress," and his 4.0 grade-point average dropped to 1.4. Other students testified that religious recruiters are commonplace on campuses.
Yet the task force also heard from several lawyers and academics who warned that attempts to ban or curtail the activities of such groups could violate their rights to religious freedom, free speech and peaceful assembly.
The International Coalition of Religious Freedom, a Virginia-based group funded by the Unification Church, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to try to shut down the task force, alleging it violated First Amendment rights. But a judge denied the group's request for a temporary injunctive order against the task force's operations, and the state's motion to have the suit dismissed is pending.
Wood says religious groups had no reason to fear the task force. "There were people who thought we were going to name names, name cults," he said. "But we were just interested in students, faculty and administration, trying to see if they faced any harmful actions by any kind of groups. . . . We found no need to single out any kind of groups."
Dan Fefferman, director of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, said he believed the task force did not set out to identify cults. Still, he noted, the mere release of the report implies that cults are a problem.
"The investigation sent a signal out to the universities that they should be on the lookout for cult activities," Fefferman said.
The Rev. Richard L. Dowhower, an anti-cult activist and the pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in Bowie, applauded the report. "The needs of cult victims have been recognized and honored," he said. "Cults themselves have been identified as a danger, and campus administrators are being put on notice that they need to develop new practices and policies and to deal with off-campus organizations."
The task force recommended that schools create an educational program for incoming students to help them make smart decisions about what groups to join and to warn them about "destructive behavior" that could affect them.
The task force also said that every college should have clear guidelines for all nonaffiliated groups that want to get involved with students on campus and should require all such groups to register with the school.
In addition, the panel:
* Commended a College Park program that trains dormitory resident assistants to stay attuned to possible cult-related problems among students, and it urged other colleges to consider such a program.
* Recommended that colleges set up a central resource to receive complaints about group activities and to track outside organizations' dealings on campus.