San Francisco — The Unification Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, is going on the legal offensive. Having won several recent court battles, the controversial organization now is using federal civil rights laws to halt "deprogrammers," who have been abducting an increasing number of Unification Church members. Charging religious discrimination, the group also has sued a northern California community where local officials are trying to prevent so-called "Moonies" from establishing a religious retreat.
Since the infamous Peoples Temple tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, cult experts have noted stepped-up recruiting activity by some nontraditional religious groups. Coincidentally, there appear to have been increasing attempts by opponents to forcibly remove and "deprogram" members of such groups.
"There's been a definite upsurge in the last six months," says one Unification Church official. "It's kind of terrorized all of our members."
In most instances in recent years, the Unification Church has succesfully blocked, in state courts, efforts by parents to obtain "conservatorship" (legal custody) of adult offspring who have joined its ranks.
Now, for the first time, the church is filing a federal civil rights suit against professional deprogrammers. The suit focuses on an incident in Oakland, Calif., in which a young man was forcibly abducted and held against his will for several days before rejoining church members. Also charged in the suit to be filed next week is the Oakland Police Department, whose members, a church official asserts, "were aware of the kidnapping and didn't do anything about it."
The results of the suit, observers say, could well set a significant precedent.
Meanwhile, the followers of the Reverend Mr. Moon also are charging in federal district court in San Francisco that Napa County officials are illegally trying to keep the organization out of that rural area -- about 50 miles north of the Bay Area.
In 1976, New Education Development Systems (NEDS), a nonprofit Unification Church affiliate, bought what had been a 762-acre resort in the county. Group members said they intended to rehabilitate 33 rundown buildings on the property and hold "seminars and lectures." County officials, who at first approved the proposal, later said that NEDS had covered up its connection with the controversial "Moonies."
A local uproar followed in which many residents expressed fear that the church retreat would become a place to indoctrinate new members. Since the residency requirement to vote in California is just 30 days, others warned that the "outsiders" soon might take over local government and schools.
After tumultuous hearings, the county planning commission and board of supervisors denied the church affiliate's proposal on environmental grounds.
Noting that the zoning designation was changed in the midst of the controversy, the church charges that bias and discrimination are the real reasons for the permit denial.
In a similar case in Alabama last year, a federal judge ruled against local officials who had attempted to use zoning ordinances to keep Unification Church members from starting a boat-building business. A federal judge on Long Island, N.Y., has in two recent instances declared unconstitutional community efforts to prevent Unification Church members from distributing literature and soliciting funds door to door.
And in Mount Kisco, N.Y., where the local zoning board has yet to decide on a Unification Church retreat and workshop, another federal suit may be iminent.
"The constitutional rights of even unpopular people must be respected,' US District Judge Stanley Weigel said at a hearing in the Napa County case last week.