SAN FRANCISCO — David Molko was waiting for a bus at the corner of Powell and Market streets one day in January, 1979, when he was approached by two casually attired and affable young men who said they were looking for a good coffee shop.
Molko, a 27-year-old law school graduate still uncertain about his future, conversed with the two for a while and, by his account, was invited to have dinner with a group called the Creative Community Project, which the men said liked to discuss world affairs.
What the two did not tell him, Molko now charges, is that they actually were recruiters for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and were hoping to eventually entice him and other young people into the church.
At dinner, Molko says, he was talked into going to a remote encampment near Boonville, Calif., where he began to succumb to sophisticated "mind-control" techniques that deprived him of the will to leave, even after he was told 12 days later that he was among Moon followers.
He ended up recruiting and raising funds for the church and donating $6,000 of his own before he was forcibly abducted by his parents and others and finally "deprogrammed."
Along with two other former church members, Molko filed a lawsuit against the church alleging fraud. After lower courts refused to permit the litigation, the former church members appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Case to Be Heard
The high court has agreed to consider the appeals in a case that could lead to the newly constituted court's first major ruling on the separation of church and state.
At issue is whether the recruitment techniques of a church are open to challenge in court or must be protected from judicial inquiry by the constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion.
The case, scheduled for verbal argument Dec. 10, has emerged at the forefront of a variety of recent court actions in which church officials have been sued for millions of dollars for fraud, harassment, "clergy malpractice" and other alleged wrongdoing.
The thorny legal questions raised in the dispute have divided academics, professionals and religious organizations, fueling the debate over the activities of so-called cult groups.
Molko and his supporters argue that the church, like anyone else, can be sued for fraud and deceit. They contend that he should be allowed to prove his case by presenting expert opinion linking the church's techniques to the indoctrination methods used by the Chinese during the Korean War.
"Lying and brainwashing are not the kind of conduct the Constitution is designed to protect," said Molko's attorney, Ford Greene of San Anselmo, Calif. "If a used car dealer had sold Molko an automobile the same way the Moonies sold him a religion, he'd be liable for fraud straight out. There's no logical reason why they should be shielded from accountability for their conduct."
The church's lawyers and their backers counter that the plaintiffs, in effect, are asking the court to impose an unreasonable and impractical legal duty on all recruiters or missionaries to disclose their affiliation and intent to gain adherents at the outset of their contacts with others.
Allowing the suit to go forward would open the way for disenchanted former members of any faith to charge that they were "unduly influenced" into joining, participating or making contributions to a church, the attorneys say.
"This could really be devastating to many religions," said Jeffrey S. Ross, a San Francisco lawyer representing the church. "Any religious experience could end up being scrutinized in court by psychiatric experts--whether it was prayer at Yom Kippur (a Jewish holy day) or a confession at a Catholic Church."
Ross said Molko and the others freely joined the church and that if the case ever goes to trial the church will vigorously contest the plaintiffs' version of what occurred.
A state Court of Appeal that reviewed the case last year conceded that the Unification Church's "beguiling" recruiting techniques might be objectionable. But where there was no force or threat of force, the First Amendment bars any inquiry into the "spiritual nature" of a church's hold on its members, the panel said, ordering the suit dismissed.
"If liability could be imposed in such circumstances, any disaffected adherent of a religion could bring suit alleging that he had been 'brainwashed' by the religious organization, and courts would become entangled in determining which former adherents acted out of true faith and which were subject to 'mind control,' " Appellate Justice J. Anthony Kline wrote for a unanimous three-member court.
Molko brought his suit in San Francisco Superior Court in July, 1980, seeking $1 million in damages for alleged fraud and deceit, infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment, an allegation that has since been dropped from the case.