‘Witch hunt’ seen by Morningland
May 5, 1978
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” by Jim Molnar – T-A Staff Writer
“Our people have been harassed,” Mahanta said Thursday from the Morningland office. “The children in school . . .
“The other children won’t go near them, harass them, ask them about killing people, won’t go near them because they say they’ll get hypnotized. They’ve been alienated from their school, their friends because of what’s happened, what’s been happening around here.
“Two, maybe three people who are in Morningland have been fired from their jobs.
“The children have had nothing to do with whatever happened. The damage that’s being imposed on the children is wrong. We just want it cleared so they can go to school. We don’t know what to do, no idea where to send them to school. They don’t want to go to school because of what’s been happening to them. They’re frightened.”
Ed Masry, Morningland’s attorney, said later from his Wilshire Boulevard office in Los Angeles, “A couple of people in Morningland have lost their jobs. The children are being harassed at school. People from Morningland have been shuffled around when they go into restaurants.
“They don’t believe in resistance. Only passive resistance. They’re very gentle people.”
Mahanta and Masry said Morningland’s First and 14th Amendments lawsuit will not be dropped. The image of a witch hunt in Escondido that Masry established at a San Diego news conference last week is being reinforced.
It might even go further. Masry said he will be coming to town next week with a film producer friend who thinks there might be a possibility here for a documentary. Masry compared the reactions and attitudes in Escondido with the social predispositions of the Deep South 30 years ago.
The constitutional lawsuit filed by Morningland in federal court last week charges conspiratorial state action to deny Morninglanders’ freedom of religion and assembly and their right to due process under the law. The group charges that the Escondido City Council and sundry municipal officials have conspired with a group of private citizens to persecute the cult. The private citizens are included in the suit (which can cover only state action under the constitutional argument) under the same provisions that allowed the civil rights actions in the 1950s and 1960s. A major argument for including the private citizens, some of whom asked for a full and open investigation of the cult before the city council early last month, is that they used public highways to reach the locations where they allegedly did things to hurt Morningland.
No one named in the lawsuit has been served the documents.
Perhaps the most consistent reaction to the lawsuit among the persons charged is that it provides another way for the cult to obtain publicity.
Unlike a lot of fringe religious groups or cults, Morningland does not engage in street-corner proselytizing. Former disciples say that members are given specific responses, or “tapes,” to make to basic questions about the group. If a discussion goes beyond those tapes, they said, questioners are invited to come to Morningland to experience the group.
Morningland has made heavy use of the media to advertise gatherings and lectures, which seem to be the primary recruiting ground. Sri Patricia, for example, has been active in lecturing on what is billed as communication with UFOs. As Morningland’s doctrines include a belief that Donato and the Space Brothers are monitoring the earth from star ships, the lectures become introductions to the cult, and persons are invited to the temple for further information.
The law, on the federal and state and local levels, gives a wide berth to individuals or groups that declare a religious focus – with the First Amendment standing as a respected guarantee that even the most unusual systems of belief deserve the right to enjoy open profession.
Richard Huffman of the San Diego County District Attorney’s office said his agency does not become involved with investigations of religious cults unless there are substantial allegations of criminal activity involved. The state attorney general’s office has little, if any involvement with youth or fringe religious cults on the same grounds.
Michael Winter, an Internal Revenue Service expert on exempt organizations, said the law protects just about anyone who hangs out a shingle that says church. Such groups are presumed exempt from federal taxes and need not file a return, although IRS has a specific process for officially granting exempt status that allows contributors to the group to declare deductions.
Winter said most legitimate churches choose to obtain those documents, which involve some investigation. IRS standards ask primarily if a group “acts like a church,” Winter said. In other words, leaders should not derive direct financial benefits from the church. The group must engage in normal charitable work. Transactions among church officials should be at arm’s length. Accurate records should be kept, and all activities should be open. There can be no substantial partisan political activity on the church’s part.
The state’s Franchise Tax Board also grants exempt status after similar inquiry, with normal investigations lasting about two months. The workload is enormous, however, with religious groups continuing to appear almost like Topsy for the past several decades.
The religious and political structure of Morningland becomes a bit confusing at first glance. There seems to be not just one church or corporation but at least four involved in the system, which reaches from Escondido on the south through Long Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
Morningland was incorporated June 16, 1974, in Los Angeles County and filed with the state the following Aug. 1. Donato, his wife Sri Patricia and Gopi Morningstaar signed the original incorporation papers.
A 1975 land transaction in Escondido involved the purchase of nearly two acres of Midway Drive property for a large Morningland temple. The loan and purchase process began under the name of Morningland Corporation – which had not yet obtained its exempt status.
During the escrow process, papers were changed to reflect the transaction in the name of “The Church of the Ascended Christ, a corporation.” Masry and Sri Patricia have said that church is ostensibly the same as Morningland; however, the “doing business as” note that usually accompanies such name changes was not apparent.
The Church of the Ascended Christ, a corporation, took title to the Midway property July 16, 1976.
However, there is no record of such a corporation ever existing with the secretary of state’s office. That becomes a bit confusing in light of a document located in one local file of articles of incorporation for The Church of the Ascended Christ, with signatures supposedly those of three Morningland Gopis.
It becomes even more confusing when it is noted that the articles are supposedly notarized with the same dates as Morningland’s with the same corporation number and state filing certification as Morningland.
Further documents signed by a Morningland Gopi say that The Church of the Ascended Christ is a chartered subsidiary of The Church of the Brotherhood, which in turn is defined as the preaching affiliate of the Brotherhood of Peace and Tranquility. Definitions in the state Corporations Code seem to indicate that a chartered subsidiary is a corporation.
Several persons questioned could see no reason or advantage of handling the transaction in the name of The Church of the Ascended Christ.
Morningland’s timeline constructed through documents and conversations with former disciples begins with Daniel Sperato’s avesha on May 16, 1971. He became Donato the Christ on that day, according to Morningland’s philosophy.
The Brotherhood of Peace and Tranquility was incorporated in Orange County later that year, filing with the state Nov. 26, 1971. Current officers live in Los Angeles, Fullerton and Huntington Beach, with the primary office listed apparently at the Huntington Beach home of the secretary-treasurer. The mailing address is a post office box in Costa Mesa, but there is no telephone listing in either 714 or 213 area codes for the church.
Morningland opened in Long Beach in September 1973, eventually expanding to its current temple.
The Church of the Brotherhood was incorporated in January of 1974 in Orange County, and current officers are the same as those for The Brotherhood of Peace and Tranquility. There is no phone listing for this church either.
By June 1974, at least two Gopis apparently were living in Escondido at a Washington Avenue address. Morningland was incorporated that month in Long Beach, with the state filing following in August. Light Festivals were being held, with guest lectures by Morningland Gopis at several Escondido locations.
The Brotherhood of Peace and Tranquility and The Church of the Brotherhood obtained their state exemptions in August 1974. The former had obtained its retroactive IRS exemption in November 1973, but there has been no IRS exemption for the latter.
(Law does not require churches to formally file fictitious name statements.)
Morningland has obtained IRS and state exemptions.
Meetings in private homes in Escondido helped Morningland grow through the summer of 1975 in Escondido. In July of that year, the Midway property was bought in the name of the Church of the Ascended Christ, then transferred to Morningland by quitclaim deed that October. About that time, the North Rose Street temple, which is rented, was opened with its bookstore and boutique.
In late December, the temple was notified by the city that it needed a license to operate the temple as a church, as well as the license it already had obtained for the bookstore. As the state’s exemption had not come through yet, Morningland obtained a standard business license for palmistry in January 1976.
With the state exemption granted retroactively in February, Morningland obtained its city church license in March 1975.
In July 1976, Morningland lost a request for a city special use permit for its planned Midway temple, facing protests from persons in that neighborhood. Morningland did not appeal that unanimous planning commission decision to the city council.
Donato died of a heart attack that following November, and Morningland sold the Midway property last December.
The question raised by Morningland in its federal lawsuit involves its freedom to operate as a religion without state interference.
The questions raised by some community members and many former disciples focus on several issues. On legal grounds, for example, the group has charged that Morningland’s astrology, palm readings, aura readings, numerological readings and other activities involve set fees, at least for all practical purposes. Morningland, in response, says it complies with guidelines by asking for donations and will not turn anyone away from those activities tied to its church.
On ethical grounds, the community group that asked for an open investigation of the cult has charged that Morningland uses mind control techniques to obscure some disciples’ ability to choose their beliefs.
Under the law, persons with complaints about Morningland primarily face the alternative of civil action to challenge the operation of the cult.
Considering that some complaints from families and former disciples begin reaching into criminal law, the city began an investigation to determine if any of the charges are founded on fact.
Morningland has claimed harassment by city officials, charging religious prejudice both before and during the investigation.
Morningland’s attorney has emphasized that his clients are ready to go to court. Former disciples and concerned families say they will welcome the opportunity.
One family, in particular, is anxious. They say that one of their family members, a 31-year-old woman, became a member of Morningland, fell prey to the pressures of the cult and eventually died from a cancer that had consumed most of her body. They say that it was mind control that encouraged Kathy Means May to avoid medical treatment, choosing instead the esoteric healing and psychic surgery of Morningland.
They do not say that Kathy was instructed by Morningland to avoid seeing a doctor on the outside. They say it was more subtle than that. They are angry.
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