“Religious Liberty for Young People Too”
Adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches
February 28, 1974
In this country, kidnapping a young person for ransom is a federal crime of utmost seriousness, but kidnapping such a person in order to change his or her religious beliefs and commitments has not thus far actuated federal authorities to invoke the statute. Grand juries have refused to indict and petit juries to convict persons charged with such acts, apparently because done at the behest of parents or other relatives and ostensibly for the good of the victim.
Sometimes the victim is unarguably a minor, subject to the authority of his or her parents. In other instances, the victim is over 25 or 30, clearly an adult competent to make his or her own commitments in religion as in other matters. The rest are between 18 and 21 years of age, and their claims to adulthood are clouded by the vagaries and a variety of federal, state and local laws.
The Governing Board of the NCC believes that religious liberty is one of the most precious rights of humankind, which is grossly violated by forcible abduction and protracted efforts to change a person’s religious commitments by duress. Kidnapping for ransom is heinous indeed, but kidnapping to compel religious deconversion is equally criminal. It violates not only the letter and spirit of state and federal statutes but the world standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The Governing Board is mindful of the intense anguish which can motivate parents at the defection of their offspring from the family faith, but in our view does not justify forcible abduction. We are aware that religious groups are accused of “capturing” young people by force, drugs, hypnotism, “brainwashing”, etc. If true such actions should be prosecuted under the law, but thus far the evidence all runs the other way: it is the would-be rescuers who are admittedly using force.
The Governing Board recognizes that parents have the ultimate responsibility for the religious nature of their children until they become adults in their own right, and parents are morally and legally justified in using reasonable force to carry out their responsibility (even if in matters of religion it may be unwise, ineffective or counter-productive). Neverless, at some point, young people are entitled to make their own decisions in religion as in other matters. What that point should be may vary from family to family, since emancipation is a gradual process (and none-too-smooth at best), but in our society emancipation is surely in most cases virtually complete by 18.
The Governing Board has previously urged the right to vote for 18 year olds*, and welcomes the action of those states which are making all rights of citizenship effective at 18 rather than 21. The right to choose and follow one’s own religion without forcible interference should likewise be guaranteed at least by that age.
Based on Policy Statement:
Approval of Article XIII of the Draft International Covenant of Human Rights – November 28, 1951