Waco Conflict Fuels Dispute over Religious Freedom

Article excerpt

Whether you're a Branch Davidian, a Methodist or not even religious, religion scholars and clergy here say you should feel some uneasiness about the case of David Koresh and his followers.

To some scholars, the case suggests that the U.S. government has little respect for the religious freedom of marginal groups. And the government's infringement of anyone's rights should be everyone's concern, they say.

For some clergy members, the case underscores sticky questions about religion in a free society: When does religious expression go too far, and who has the right to define "too far?"

Eleven Branch Davidians who survived a federal raid and explosion at the sect's complex in Waco, Texas, last February went on trial this month on charges of murdering four federal agents, killed in a raid on the complex Feb. 28.

Prosecutors have described the sect's beliefs as a "theology of death" backed by an arsenal of weapons, while defense lawyers have portrayed the defendants as peace-loving, religious people.

"The government ridiculed their prophet, then bombarded and assaulted their home," one defense lawyer, Dan Cogdell, told the jury last week in the courtroom in San Antonio.

Frank Flinn, adjunct professor of religion at Washington University, and William Young, professor of religion at Westminster College in Fulton, are among scholars who think there should have been no trial.

They say federal authorities labeled the religious sect a "dangerous cult" to justify their raid and a tear-gas attack on April 19 ending in the fatal explosions that left Koresh and more than 80 of his followers dead.

"People think that if they can portray somebody as a cult, then they can justify doing anything they want to them, legal or illegal," says Flinn, who has testified in numerous court cases as an expert witness on religious freedom issues.

"They can justify violence, because cults are alleged to exercise violence. You don't have to prove anything. You can just throw out the epithet."

Young, who has studied the Branch Davidians in Waco, said the case had been "a real tragedy in regard to religious freedom from the very beginning, and unfortunately the tragedy continues with the trial."

"The Branch Davidians, although they're a non-conventional religion . . . were caught up in a stereotyping effort," he said. "There is a lot of evidence that if the FBI in particular had been more open to listening to religious scholars, that this could have been settled peacefully. …