Witches and Satanists tax-exempt? When we raised the issue in the September 1988 Chronicles, several members of the nation’s clerical lobby scoffed. But in Rhode Island, the home of Roger Williams and other champions of religious freedom without responsibility, a witches’ coven known as Our Lady of the Roses Wiccan Church has apparently met the guidelines that determine a legitimate church group.

Sandra Murphy, the administrative hearing officer who oversaw the case, told the AP reporter that she did not think the decision would set a precedent, by which she can only have meant it was a bad decision. The case, amusing in itself as a comment on the mind of Rhode Island officialdom, raises serious questions about church-state relations.

The conventional view, promoted most loudly by those who stand to gain the most, is that religious bodies somehow stand outside the boundaries of jurisprudence. In the name of religious freedom, men and women have a right to shelter income or pay no taxes, refuse to discharge their military and civil obligations, and engage in illegal activities. Since matters of the spirit take precedence over matters of the flesh, it is not up to the state or the people to determine which religions they are willing to tolerate.

All of this sounds harmless enough until we come up against the hard cases. The mass-murderer Jim Jones was a religious leader. A little intolerance would have saved lives. Charles Manson’s family is usually described as a “cult” and their murders labeled as “ritual killings.” Obviously no one wants to extend the First Amendment that far, but what of the practitioners of Santeria and Voodoo who, at the very least, violate state and municipal health codes by torturing and slaughtering animals? For years we have heard that such practices were bizarre and even offensive but deserved protection. Religious conservatives and anti-cult groups both made the point that Santeria was in itself disgusting and implied a view of life that was inherently dangerous. This criticism was set down to ethnocentrism and nativism, a failure to appreciate how our culture was being enriched by Third World immigrants. When bodies began turning up on the Mexican border, the defenders of non-European culture were given a taste of what they were defending.

It is difficult but not impossible for a prudent nation to draw- a line separating cults from religions. There are no hard and fast rules, but some of the distinguishing marks of a cult include recent origin (although Voodoo is as old as the Prince of Lies himself), a charismatic leader who exercises near absolute power over the lives of his followers, and a deliberate seclusion from the ordinary world. Exception can be taken to every one of these clauses, and in the end it is up to a people to determine just how tolerant they are willing to be.

The natural process of history has a way of sorting things out. Liabilities against Catholics were stupid in 19th-century England, but it made a great deal of political sense in the 17th century, and while Protestants always find restrictions on their celebrations and missions deplorable, it is hard not to sympathize with Catholic rulers who did not wish to see their people divided by religious strife. The prime case today is Israel, where Orthodox Jews have fought adamantly against the construction of a Brigham Young facility for fear of Mormon missionizing.

In religious matters the, Romans were a most tolerant people and accorded legitimacy to a wide variety of sects, including Judaism but not Christianity. In the official view, Christianity was dangerous because of its allegedly bizarre practices—e.g., cannibalism and fornication—and because it taught its converts to be bad citizens who would refuse to shoulder their obligations. The Romans were wrong. With few exceptions. Christians were good Roman citizens, and their support was vital to Constantine’s revitalization of the empire. However, if the Romans had been correct, if Christians really were no different from Santeros, and if they really did teach what we now call the doctrine of Civil Disobedience, then the Romans were obliged to stop the spread of a cult so pernicious to civilization and social order. (TF)