Updated: Sep 14
When you get into some of the nitty-gritty details around cults and coercion, a natural question tends to arise:
Are cults illegal?
The answer is: religious cults are legal in the United States, but this may not be true worldwide.
Like many cult-related topics, it's complicated.
In this post, we'll go through a high-level overview on the legality of cults, why they're legal in the USA, and the difficulty of defining where religious freedom ends and coercion begins under the law.
Religious Cults Are Legal
The United States of America guarantees religious freedom for all of its citizens. As stated on Whitehouse.gov regarding the United States' Constitution:
The First Amendment provides that Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Under this amendment, religious cults can legally exist in the United States of America. In broad terms, the government is not permitted to outlaw a religious group simply because it does not adhere to mainstream religions.
That said, there are parameters that help qualify religious groups under the law.
While relatively loose, these guidelines can help our judicial and tax systems make determinations on the legitimacy of a religious movement. A group cannot simply claim religious beliefs and automatically qualify as a religion.
The IRS in particular uses guidelines that assesses whether a religious group qualifies as a "church" or a "religious institution". A church is distinguished by:
a distinct legal existence and religious history,
a recognized creed and form of worship,
established places of worship
a regular congregation and regular religious services, and
an organization of ordained ministers
Not all religious groups meet these qualifications however, so further investigation and adjudication is sometimes required to determine things like tax status. This is because churches (including some groups identified as cults) are 501(c)(3) entities that are exempt from taxes under the law.
The point here is that while the first amendment grants freedom of religion, many feel that - when need be - there is a collective obligation for these groups to be accountable to society, and for society to hold them accountable. We discuss this more in the next section.
Illegal Acts Committed By Legal Entities
There's a very important distinction to make when answering "are cults illegal?".
While cults themselves are legal entities, that does not mean these groups have free reign to commit illegal activity.
If a group conspires and commits an illegal act, the members who engaged in that act can be brought to justice if caught.
For example, if a cult engages in illegal activities such as fraud, theft, or drug trafficking, its members can be prosecuted for those crimes. They have the same rights as all other Americans under our judicial system.
Similarly, if a cult engages in abusive or coercive practices such as physical abuse, forced labor, or sexual exploitation, its leaders and members can be held accountable under criminal and civil laws.
Unfortunately, the coercive nature of some groups that engage in illegal activity can sometimes offer protection to cult leaders themselves.
For instance, a charismatic leader may be able to deny criminal conduct and be supported by adherents in the group - whether out of fear, loyalty, or some other reason. It's not uncommon for group members who have been caught in illegal activity to protect cult leaders as well.
Given this, it's easy to see how circumstances can lead to the creation of potentially dangerous groups. In some cases, small religious groups with a high degree of control over members have operated as criminal organizations for years without discovery.
And even when caught red-handed, bringing perpetrators to justice isn't always straightforward.
Legal Complications of Cults and Religious Groups
Think about some of these hypotheticals:
What happens when a cult claims that an illegal activity is a religious belief?
What happens when potentially dangerous groups use coercive tactics on people outside their belief system?
What happens when coercive groups gather and hoard resources, manipulate government officials, or utilize public infrastructure to commit harm?
What happens when a member who commits a crime takes shelter and is protected by armed group members who refuse to give up their companion?
All of these questions - and more - illustrate just how complicated the legality of cults has become. Even a closer look at what cult means illustrates the kind of complexity that exists around these groups
While it is morally correct that religious groups be protected by the first amendment, the harmful effects and human rights violations sometimes committed by cults can be problematic.
In fact, some of the hypotheticals above have fueled anti-cult movements, debate over church tax exemption, and the discussion of further legislation surrounding coercive groups.
One of the most notorious instances of a cult interfacing with law enforcement in the United States happened in Waco, Texas. The event is now known as the Waco Siege or Waco Massacre.
In 1993, a small group known as the Branch Davidians lived on a compound outside of Waco, TX.
To quickly summarize: the extreme nature of their beliefs and a suspicion that illegal weapons were being stockpiled on their compound, prompted a clumsy investigation and a series of escalations with local and state governments. After a 51-day standoff with the FBI, the situation boiled over and resulted in the destruction of the group's compound.
When the smoke cleared, 82 Branch Davidians and 4 federal officers had lost their lives - on national television.
The details surrounding this incident are sad, unfortunate, and complex. The controversies surrounding it are still debated today.
The reason I bring up this story isn't to add to the debate. Rather, it shows that the real-life application of the law to potentially dangerous groups isn't always straightforward. When religious freedom and criminal conduct are intertwined, the legal and social concerns that emerge are anything but simple.
Does that mean we should police religious beliefs or restrict religious freedom? No.
But it does illustrate that the term cult is complex, and that how we respond to coercive situations is more important than ever before.
The Legality of Cults World-Wide
It is also worth noting that some countries have laws specifically targeting cults or so-called "destructive cults."
These laws are intended to prevent or prosecute harmful practices that can be associated with some cults.
Some of the countries that have implemented anti-cult legislation or keep lists of cults include:
In these countries, the legality of cults can vary depending on the specific actions and practices of the group in question. Such efforts have not been without controversy or critique, and their ultimate utility remains to be seen.
In addition to the countries above, Pew Research Center shared in 2019 that 41 countries have bans on certain religious groups.
While a few of the religious groups that are banned have notorious reputations, there are places where otherwise mainstream religions are considered illegal. Such restrictions on the free exercise of religion are against the UN's Declaration of Human Rights and deserve further scrutiny.
Being part of a cult is not inherently illegal in the United States, as individuals have the right to freedom of belief and association under the law.
But while cults themselves aren't illegal, the actions and practices of cults that violate laws can result in legal consequences for the group and its members.
More than ever, it's important for governments to protect the free exercise of religion.
Cults are complex, but not unknowable!