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A Test of Faith : Montana Events Raise Questions on When Kids May Spurn Parents' Religion

March 29, 1990

LIVINGSTON, Mont. — Some aspects of his parents' religion have been more difficult to adjust to than others for Chris Gilbert, 16. He has managed, for instance, to tune out the keening chants his mother listens to constantly on a continuous-play cassette.

But he has had a harder time ignoring the looming prospect that he soon may be forced to live under the ground.

Gilbert's parents belong to the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group that has been in the news in recent weeks because its leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, has prophesied nuclear war in late March or April.

In anticipation of this predicted cataclysm, thousands of Prophet's followers, including Gilbert's parents, have moved to Montana's Paradise Valley, where they have dug 45 extensively equipped bomb shelters, the largest capable of holding 756 people.

When Prophet gives word that an attack is inevitable, an estimated 2,500 church members are supposed to descend for anywhere from seven months to seven years into their shelters, "like gophers down a hole," as one of Gilbert's friends put it.

"I've known for a long time I wasn't going to go underground," Gilbert said in a recent interview at the foster home where he now lives. "When you don't believe in it (Prophet's teachings), and your parents and all their friends bombard you with it, it's real hard."

The stress grew so great for Gilbert and at least four other children of church members in recent weeks that they left home rather than face the possibility of moving into shelters.

While they have acquiesced to their parents' beliefs up to a point--they have moved to Montana, for instance--these teen-agers (and possibly more youngsters, say authorities, who note not all the cases have been reported to officials) have drawn the line at following their mothers and fathers into bomb shelters.

And by their actions, they have thrust themselves into what has become a Montana tempest that tests the practice of some of the most fundamental American rights.

Although no one is even close to going to court, the events in Livingston have raised thorny legal issues and a divisive local debate over questions such as:

* Do youngsters have a right to religious freedom, and may they contest their parents' attempts to compel them to follow a particular belief?

* And what role, if any, should the state play in cases where young people sharply disagree with their parents' religious beliefs?

For Wolfgang Schwartz, 15, a non-church member who is the boyfriend of Chelsea Brannon, one of the runaways, the answers are plain.

"I don't think parents should have the right to put their kids under the ground against their will," he said.

Explaining her reasons for running away in interviews with area media, Brannon said that although her father loves her and thinks the shelters are in his family's best interests, "I love myself, too. I have to look out for my own future too, my own safety."

Brannon is living with her mother, a non-church member, in Seattle, Schwartz said.

At least one other runaway returned home. Others are with relatives or in foster care.

But, while the runaways have defined clearly for themselves the limits of parental rights, adults here and around the country are having a harder time deciding where those lines should be drawn.

The question of whether to give sanctuary to church children has divided many of the 12,000 residents of the mountain-fringed Paradise Valley.

In Livingston, an Old West town full of saloons and hunting shops, an informal group of residents calling themselves the Network of Friends is offering assistance to children who wish to leave the church.

"All we are asking is to provide them some amnesty, some space, some time," said Gwen Handl, one of the parents involved in helping the runaways.

Handl and others are critical of local authorities who say the runaways must be returned to their homes because they have found no evidence the church children are being physically or emotionally abused--factors that would be grounds for agency intervention.

The Montana Department of Family Services summed up the prevailing official attitude in a letter to the editor of the Livingston Enterprise: "The fact that (Church Universal and Triumphant) members are preparing their children to enter bomb shelters in the event of nuclear war clearly does not fall within the legal definition of mental injury."

The letter was signed by Robert L. Mullen, director, and Bill Collins, regional administrator of the agency.

And Park County Atty. Nels Swandal said in an interview that the allegations of abuse are "pure speculation. You don't take away (parents') rights based on speculation."

Defining emotional abuse is the task of the Park County Department of Family Services. Social worker Rob Marchetti said he looks for evidence that a child is likely to harm himself or herself or suffer mental illness as a result of the situation at home.

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