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 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. …