Some countries, expressing concern with possible abuses by groups they regard as cults, have for a variety of reasons implemented restrictive measures against some of the activities of organizations which they see as cults. Against a background of suspicion of, and generally low regard for, groups identified as cults (in French: sectes, in German: Sekten), such measures sometimes intensified in the wake of various crimes committed in connection with certain so-called "cults".
A difference in viewpoint regarding religious tolerance sometimes pits the United States of America against several European countries (especially France and Germany) which have enacted legislation against groups considered cultic. Critics of such measures argue (for example) that the counter-cult movement and the anti-cult movement, abetted by media sensationalism, have succeeded in influencing governments in transferring public abhorrence of doomsday cults in such a way as to direct it indiscriminately against new religious movements or small religious groups. Proponents of those measures regard this criticism as unwarranted and contend that there exists a variety of dangerous actions (sexual abuse, extortion, etc.) that alleged cults engage in, besides the few cases of mass suicide and murder.
Governing institutions — like mainstream religions — have long harbored suspicions of heterodox beliefs, seeing them as disruptive to unity, threatening to existing political control-mechanisms and subversive of any "right-thinking" standard "status quo" orthodoxy. (Compare laws against blasphemy.)
The identification of a single state or nation-state with a single approved set of enforceable religious beliefs became standardized under the post-Reformation doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio. Totalitarian régimes in the 20th century countered the general movement towards tolerance with actions against religious minorities: note especially the case of the Soviet Union — see religion in the Soviet Union. Thus suspicions of and special treatment for minorities with "unusual" ideas (compare moral panic) have a long and well-ingrained history — even prior to the exposure of doomsday cults.
The report included a list of 189 organizations which had come up during the investigation, including the Amish Mission in Belgium, some Buddhist groups such as Soka Gakkai or Ogyen Kunzang Chöling, several Roman Catholic groups such as Opus Dei, some Evangelical Christian denominations, Hasidic Judaism, Quakers, and Satanists. The report stated immediately before the listing:
The Belgian Parliament in its plenary session of May 7, 1997 rejected most of the Commission’s report, including the above-mentioned list (tableau synoptique). Out of the 670-page-report, the Belgian Parliament approved only the section “conclusions and recommendations” (pages 209-226).
The Quakers complained to the Deputy Prime Ministers about their inclusion on the list, pointing out their programs of humanitarian aid, and requested to see the evidence which the federal police had presented against them in a closed session to the Parliamentary Commission. The Quaker appeal did not succeed.
As a consequence of the advice of the Commission to the Parliament, the legislators adopted a law on 2 June 1998 to observe cults that might break the law. This resulted in the foundation of the Center for information and Advice on Harmful Cults (Centre d'information et d'avis sur les organisations sectaires nuisibles or CIAOSN), located in Brussels.
According to Edward Irons, a 2001 People's Republic of China "government publication lists the following 12 officially proscribed groups:"
Much attention in the Chinese context since 1999 focuses on Falun Gong. Falun Gong in China provides an example of wide-ranging measures against a group which it considers to be a cult. After a demonstration by 10,000 practitioners in the capital, the Chinese government began a campaign against the once popular practice, using all forms of media to attack it. It is commonly reported that in their drive to dismantle and discredit the practice, authorities have jailed, beaten, and tortured followers. The psychologist and member of the U.S. anti-cult movement, Margaret Singer regarded Falun Gong as a "cult." Academics and investigators, such as David Ownby and David Kilgour, say the term 'cult' to describe Falun Gong is misleading propaganda used to justify repression.
While the constitution of the United States (for example) allows no legislation on religion, things differ in Europe. The Council of Europe, to which 47 European nations belong, has had in force since 1953 a "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms", which defines religious freedom and sets certain limits to it:
On June 22, 1999 the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly adopted, unanimously, in view of the "the serious incidents which had occurred in recent years" a recommendation which gives priority to the provision of information on sects. The recommendation regards major legislation on sects as undesirable, but it calls on the member states:
i. where necessary, to set up or support independent national or regional information centres on groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature;
ii. to include information on the history and philosophy of important schools of thought and of religion in general school curricula;
iii. to use the normal procedures of criminal and civil law against illegal practices carried out in the name of groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature;
iv. to ensure that legislation on the obligation to enrol children at school is rigorously applied, and that appropriate authorities intervene in the event of non-compliance;
v. where necessary, to encourage the setting-up of non-governmental organisations for the victims, or the families of victims, of religious, esoteric or spiritual groups, particularly in eastern and central European countries;
vi. to encourage an approach to religious groups which will bring about understanding, tolerance, dialogue and resolution of conflicts;
vii. to take firm steps against any action which is discriminatory or which marginalises religious or spiritual minority groups.
On May 22, 1984 the European Parliament passed a resolution with the title "New Organizations Operating Under the Protection Afforded to Religious Beliefs" that expressed the Parliament's concern about the recruitment and treatment of the members of these new organizations.
In March 1997, a "Resolution on cults in Europe" by the European Parliament reaffirmed its attachment to the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law (such as tolerance, and freedom of conscience, religion, thought, association and assembly) as well as calling on its Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs to meet and work on collecting and sharing information that would enable the drawing of conclusions on the best way to restrain undesirable activities by sects and on strategies to raise public awareness about them.
On December 22, 1997 the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs released an amended resolution named "Resolution on Cults in the European Union" and originally intended for voting on by the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the session of January 1998. The plenary of the European Parliament in July 1998 rejected the text of the resolution, with anti-cultists seeing it as too weak and religious-liberties activists considering it out of the scope of the European Parliament to decide. The resolution went back to the Commission for further consideration.
Following the 1995 mass-suicides of adepts of the Order of the Solar Temple, the French Parliament set up a Parliamentary Commission, led by MP Alain Gest, and encouraged public caution towards groups that it classed as cults. In December 1995 the Commission parlementaire sur les sectes en France ("Parliamentary Commission on cults in France") published its report (also known as the Rapport Gest-Guyard). The document classified various movements and qualified as cults those movements which it considered represented a potential threat either toward the adepts themselves or toward society and the state. The Parliament also adopted legislation making it easier to prosecute alleged crimes committed by cults. However, both the reports and the legislation have proven controversial in some circles; Scientology, in particular, refuses to accept its classification as a cult. Whatever the stance adopted, the report provides a serious categorization of new religious movements and other cultic phenomena, and attempts to define what constitutes a "cult", notwithstanding the necessary respect of freedom of religion and the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a circulaire in May 2005 calling for renewed vigor in the fight against cults, and indicating in passing that the list of cults published in the 1995 parliamentary report had become less relevant over time as the methods and forms used by cults evolved.
The French Parliament passed a law (the About-Picard law) in 2001 which (its proponents declared) aimed at repressing the excesses of groups infringing human rights and fundamental freedoms. The law makes it possible to prosecute organizations (rather than just individuals) for a number of crimes already represented in the criminal code; in the case of established criminal behavior by an organization, courts may disband the organization. Legislators rejected a provision criminalizing "mental manipulation", included in early drafts, because of concerns about the vagueness of this notion.
This legislation attracted some concerned remarks, but no condemnation, from the Helsinki International Federation for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, an Investigatory Commission for Violations of Human Rights hosted by the Omnium des Libertés, and from minority religious groups. The US government under the Clinton administration also expressed criticism. Critics argued that improper application of such legislation could result in the arbitrary banning of unpopular religious groups; and that the legislation fostered in the public and amongst officials an atmosphere of discrimination against members of emerging religions.
The German federal government does not accept (for example) Scientology's self-designation as a religion, but regards it as a business disguised as a religion. The German internal secret service, the Verfassungsschutz, monitors Scientology, and the German authorities place restrictions on its activities.
In 1997 the United States Congress failed to pass a proposed resolution related to "discrimination by the German Government against members of minority religious groups" that mentioned only Scientology-related examples of discrimination. See also Status of religious freedom in Germany.
The government of Iran treats members of some minority religious movements (such as Bahá'ís) as though they belong to cults, with restrictions on their rights and privileges. See religious minorities in Iran and Persecution of Bahá'ís.
In Switzerland there exists according to the constitution no legislation whatsoever about religion at the national level, only at the level of the cantons. At federal level Switzerland grants no church or religion or religious group any official recognition, and passes no legislation forbidding any religious groups.
Some cases involving the sentencing of members of religious groups and purported cults for breaking Swiss law include:
In 1988 Professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, with funding from the Home Office and with the support of mainstream churches, founded a charity named INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements). According to its website, INFORM has as its primary aim "to help people through providing them with accurate, balanced, up-to-date information about new and/or alternative religious or spiritual movements."
Eileen Barker has been widely criticized as an apologist for cults and for the 'Unification Church' (Moonies') in particular.
Timothy Miller, of the University of Kansas writes that no country in the world has a religious diversity as extensive as that found in the United States. He asserts that this religious diversity stems in significant part from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that no religion will have governmental endorsement and that all Americans have the freedom to practise the religion(s) of their choice. Tolerance and diversity also encouraged the growth of non-religious cults, for which California has a particular reputation.
Countries such as France and Germany energetically protest against the frequent accusations made by the United States government against countries such as France and Germany for measures which countries such as France or Germany consider as protecting their citizens against destructive and/or fraudulent cults violating human rights. Shortly after German Scientologist Antje Victore received political asylum in the US in 1996 following alleged religious persecution in Germany, German newspapers showed evidence that fellow-Scientologist company-owners had fabricated Victore's "proofs" (letters denying her employment due to her Scientology-beliefs).
A travel advisory of the United States Department of State, which mentions neither Sathya Sai Baba nor other individuals, warns US citizens traveling to Andhra Pradesh of unconfirmed reports of inappropriate sexual behavior toward young male devotees by "a prominent local religious leader".