It was aimed at cults, but many churchmen opposed it.

Rarely has such unified alarm been sounded by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews as it was at a recent attempt in the New York state legislature to legalize “deprogramming.”

Both from within the legislature and from without, warnings of danger to religious liberty’ arose as the New York lawmakers passed a bill that sought to legislate a difference between religions and cults, between conversion and brainwashing, and between acceptable and unacceptable evangelistic activity.

The bill threatened freedom of religion, more than a dozen religious organizations said. Governor Hugh Carey agreed and vetoed the bill. He vetoed a similar bill last year.

The issue arose when a state assemblyman, Howard L. Lasher, a Democrat from Brooklyn, N.Y., proposed an amendment to the state’s mental hygiene law.

The amendment would have allowed a person to obtain temporary custody of a close relative and put him through a “program” devised to “enable” him “to make informed and independent judgments at the end of the period of temporary guardianship.”

The word “cult” never appeared in the amendment, which even specified that custody could not be “for the purpose of altering the political, religious or other beliefs” of the relative. But, like a rose by any other name, it was frequently called a “cult bill.”

In a joint statement, more than a dozen religious organizations warned, “This bill would inevitably lead to severe violations of the freedom of religion and association.… No single piece of legislation,” they said, had drawn such “unilateral opposition.” Organizations signing the statement included the New York Conference of American Baptists, the N.Y. Catholic Conference, the N.Y. Chapter of the ...

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