Stroll across almost any college campus, and it's likely you'll spot a flurry of religious recruiting: colorful fliers touting Bible study and Sabbath dinners; tables staffed by bright-eyed young people offering pamphlets on everything from the Sikh faith to paganism.
Religious groups have long flocked to campus, anxious to spread their messages to young minds at a time when they are most open to new ideas. Today, schools from the University of California-Berkeley to Boston University are reporting record numbers of religious organizations for students. "We have multiple groups for almost every possible kind of religion," says Karen Kenney, director of student activities and services at Berkeley, where around 50 faith-oriented clubs include Ginosko, for Christian Bible study in Korean, and Pa'amayim, for gay Jewish undergrads.
But variety can bring controversy, especially when it comes to organizations that seem less like sects than like cults. For schools, this means a tough balancing actweighing freedom of speech and religion against protecting students from harm. "Religious diversity [on campus] has become so great that it tests our tolerance for one another," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center. "What happens when some of the groups that are new or maybe controversial in the community want recognition, want space, want to be treated in the same way as other groups?"
Heavy recruiters. Take the International Churches of Christ. A fast-growing Christian organization known for aggressive proselytizing to college students, the ICOCwhich some ex-members and experts on mind-control assert is a cultis one of the most controversial religious groups on campus. At least 39 institutions, including Harvard and Georgia State, have outlawed the organization at one time or another for violating rules against door-to-door recruiting, say, or harassment. "I'm banning destructive behaviors, not religion," says the Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of the chapel at Boston University, which barred the ICOC from campus after members posted signs saying their meeting was mandatory.
Janine Marnien, for one, felt intense pressure to join the ICOC. In 1998, the then freshman was on her way across the University of Southern California campus, when a beaming young woman stepped in her path and invited her to a nondenominational church serviceand wouldn't take no for an answer. Countless calls, compliments, and invitations later, Marnien was a full-fledged convert, attending almost daily Bible studies, services, and social activitiesand forcefully recruiting other students as well. In addition to giving of her time, she was also required to donate a tenth of her incomeabout 30 percent of each meager work-study paycheck. "I just didn't realize what I had gotten into," says Marnien, now a junior. "That is, until my discipler told me I couldn't go home for my father's birthday."
A zealous group, to be sure, but is it a cult? "We're no more a cult than Jesus was a cult," says Al Baird, spokesperson for the ICOC, which, he insists, does not condone harassment and is merely an evangelical church out to "share Jesus with everybody." University of Virginia sociology Prof. Jeffrey Hadden, who has studied religious movements for over 30 years, agrees. "Every new religion experiences a high level of tension with society because its beliefs and ways are unfamiliar. But most, if they survive, we come to accept as part of the religious landscape." He cites Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists as examples.
Still, experts say the label has nothing to do with radical beliefs and everything to do with behavior. Each of the estimated 3,000 cults in this country has a unique ideology, but they all share certain worrisome traits (box). Students are particularly easy prey. "They are in transition from the culture of their parents, which leaves them somewhat uncertain and anxious," explains Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry and the author of Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. "Cults provide answers."
How to deal. In the past, schools have dealt with controversial religious groups quietlyif at allin large part because of First Amendment concerns. "A public college campus is a forum for wide-ranging ideas, some of them quite provocative, and we have to walk a very narrow line between respecting a student's right to make a mistake, or to think differently than we do, and punishing a group for some clearly illegal behavior," says Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs and student ethical development at the University of Maryland-College Park.
Last year, the Maryland state legislature convened a hotly contested task force to study the effects of "dangerous groups" at its public institutions, partly in response to complaints from parents who say their daughtera student at the College Park campuswent to a dorm adviser for advice and got recruited into a cult instead. Earlier this month, the State University of New York's Purchase College settled a court case surrounding a 1998 incident, in which one local ICOC member was suspended for allegedly "intimidating . . . harassing . . . and detaining" a fellow student, and the church was banned from holding services on campus; as of now, the student has been reinstated, and the group is allowed to use school facilities again.
Private universities have more leeway in determining who's on campus. Last month, Matthew Hale, a white supremacist and self-proclaimed pastor of the World Church of the Creator, visited Northwestern University in an attempt to establish a chapter. School officials don't know if they'll consent to the admittedly racist, antisemitic organization, even if Hale obtains the 15 required signatures to form a student group. "We routinely regulate who is allowed on our campus," says Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations. "Getting people to sign up for anything, be it the World Church of the Creator or long-distance telephone service, is not central to our mission of teaching and research."
Hale's not concerned. "We already exist on campus," he says, claiming to have followers at Northwestern and a slew of other schools across the country, including Yale and the University of Montana. "The only question is whether we're going to be aboveboard, or be covert."