Why the Need for Clergy Authentication Laws?
Some states’ laws require that no one can claim they are an ordained pastor unless they receive that ordination from a registered 501(c)3 religious organization/denomination and the ordained pastor registers with the state, so there are already some stepping stones for full-fledged Clergy Authentication Laws. In other states people can self-ordain and quite literally “ordain” their dog, cat, or canary. For example, such organizations as United National Ministry and The Universal Life Church do no background checks and do not require any education in religious studies whatsoever. Yet the official-looking “ordination” documentation these organizations give to people can be presented to town clerk offices to marry people, provide counseling to people, start actual or online churches or “groups,” and perform any variety of other religious interpersonal activities – without any criminal background checks, without any valid religious training from an accredited seminary or religious training institute, and without any education in counseling. Stephen Ministries based in St. Louis, Missouri operates in a similar way in that they provide certifications to people who attend a seminar in any sponsoring “church.” That certification can then be used by people designated as “Stephen Ministers” to offer personal or even, apparently, group counseling – an activity that in the hands of those with no counseling training can result in irreparable emotional damage to unsuspecting “clients.” Apparently in recent years Stephen Ministries programs require Stephen Ministers to attend ongoing training, but as a Stephen Ministries employee told me in 2022, anyone can fabricate a Stephen Ministry ID and that it is up to the Stephen Ministries program leader and other organizations to do recommended (not required) background checks.
In 2019 the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that banned anyone ordained by any mail order ordination organization from performing marriages. Governor Bill Lee signed that bill into law, which became effective in July, 2019. The Universal Life Church promptly filed a meritless lawsuit against the state of Tennessee. By September, 2019, The Universal Life Church dropped their lawsuit. The Tennessee law banning those “ordained” by mail order ordination organizations paves the way for a Clergy Authentication Law.
As with any other profession that seeks public trust and offers important personal and public services – such as personal counseling and officiating at weddings and funerals – laws are needed in all states and U.S. territories to require valid training from an accredited U.S. university/seminary/religious training institution which includes ongoing professional certification and accountability for anyone using a religious leader title such as minister, pastor, reverend, rabbi, imam, guru, spirit guide, etc.
There is Precedent for Clergy Authentication Requirements.
U.S. military chaplains are required to have degrees from accredited universities/seminaries and undergo extensive background checks with required references. If that’s good enough for our military personnel then every state should make that a required law for the protection of the general public. All the more is a clergy authentication law needed due to the exponential rise of cult leaders/coercive group leaders/new religious movement leaders, and due to the sexual abuse and spiritual/psychological, physical and financial abuse committed by unscrupulous religious leaders that continue to make headlines.
Our country, and most other countries, have necessary and good sense laws determining who can legally use and promote themselves with such titles as doctor, nurse, pharmacist, psychologist, airline pilot, accountant, teacher, attorney, plumber, electrician, etc. For the protection of the public, certification and licenses are required by state and federal laws to permit qualified people to use these kinds of professional titles. And because we know such laws exist – laws that were enacted to protect us from harm – we therefore place our trust in people who have certain titles because we know that certain laws exist that require people who use those titles to obtain the proper certified, accredited training.
Just as there are state and federal requirements designating who can use such titles as doctor, pharmacist, plumber, attorney, accountant, etc., there should be safeguarding regulations for the use of religious titles such as minister, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc. Religious leaders do more than give religious speeches to audiences. They interact with individuals on a very personal level, and therefore are given trust, in large part because of their religious title. Just as a doctor, accountant, or plumber would be outraged if someone used these titles when that person did not possess the proper qualifications and licensing, so too should validly ordained clergy who have spent years in schooling and even more years building a good reputation be outraged at those individuals who self-ordain and fraudulently promote themselves as titled clergy. Therefore, every validly ordained clergy member should support clergy authentication laws.
Religious titles generally evoke instantaneous trust and a sense of safety among many if not most people. Such trust and sense of safety often results in people feeling safe to donate money to those people using religious titles and cause people to seek spiritual and emotional guidance from religiously titled people. People will often freely discuss intimate details of their lives to those using a religious title. This is where the abuse and violation of trust can begin.
Religious leaders often have the same if not more personal contact with people, especially their congregation members or followers, as other professionals have with people in the general public. That kind of weekly or even daily interaction creates far more chances for abuse of power, especially by those who are not validly trained, ordained, and who have no accountability to any superior or governing board.
The Role of Seminaries and Other Religious Institutions
It is horrific when validly ordained religious leaders inflict sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, or financial abuse against those who trusted them. There may be some form of accountability obtained from the abusive religious leader’s superiors or governing board, although there have certainly been evident in too many cases the egregious failure of superiors and governing boards to take appropriate action against abusive religious leaders in their charge. Nonetheless, the cases in which superiors and governing boards have carried out their ethical, moral duties and handed abusive religious leaders over to authorities cannot be ignored or belittled, and there are some seminaries and religious training institutions that have introduced more screening efforts to weed out those applying to their schools who may not be psychologically stable. Some seminaries and religious training institutions have also updated their courses to address problems with various forms of abuse of power. But there are too many seminaries and religious training institutions that are shamefully irresponsible when it comes to accepting and graduating people with obvious troubling personalities and behaviors. Religious institutions need to be more selective of applicants and more evaluating of those already enrolled and heading for graduation. And more needs to be done by religious institutions to revoke and void any ordination they’ve bestowed on those who use the trust granted to them as clergy to commit heinous acts against people. Afterall, even if the powers that be in these religious institutions choose not to have the necessary moral indignation and outrage to care about the many victims of religious leaders’ abuse – particularly abuse caused by a religious leader who graduated from their institution – they should at the very least be concerned about their own reputations.
The Role of the State
I am not at all in support of excessive state control over any aspect of people’s lives, including religious aspects. But the primary responsibility of any government – whether that government consists of a small tribal community or a large country – is to implement reasonable means to protect its citizenry from internal and external dangers. It is reasonable to expect and even demand that our government responsibly address the problem of religious frauds who hide under the cloak of religious rights. Religious frauds are no different than organized crime leaders who hide behind what appear to be legitimate businesses but which are nothing more than deceptive fronts to commit any variety of crimes.
As bad as it is when officially ordained individuals commit horrific acts against people, it can be even worse when mentally unstable individuals who don’t answer to any governing board or superiors purposely seek to deceive the public by using a religious title for which they have no valid ordination or even training. This is their first act of fraud. Frauds who call themselves “pastors” or by any other religious title can commit the same or worse life-altering damage as an officially ordained religious figure can when they spew out reckless or abusive “counsel” or act abusively toward another human being, all under the guise of religion.
When a doctor, with a state license to practice medicine in any given state, commits heinous acts of sexual abuse against people and especially children, that doctor can face arrest, prosecution and conviction, as well as having his or her license revoked and never be able to legally practice medicine. Yet when a clergy member commits the same heinous sexual abuse there is no license to revoke because there is no state that licenses clergy. A person who calls him or herself by a religious title who is convicted and sentenced to prison for any variety of crimes can still use that religious title in prison! Every other profession – even nail salon workers – are required by states to have more training, certification, and licensing than anyone who calls themselves by a religious title. This must stop. Enacting laws aimed at protecting the general public by licensing those who obtain training and ordination from a U.S.-accredited religious institution is in no way a violation of religious rights. Again, our U.S. military already sets precedent for requiring education and behavior standards for those seeking to become military chaplains.
What defines a good law is that which fulfills the primary responsibility government has to protect people from danger. Yet when it comes to “religious” figures and “religious” organizations there exists in our country poor to non-existent laws and enforcement of laws by the IRS, the FBI, local police and other governing offices. See, for example:
Court rules churches can continue to conceal financial information.
Fraud thriving in U.S. churches but you wouldn’t know it.
Sending IRS against phony churches is bringing a knife to a gun fight.
Cults/Coercive Groups/New Religious Movements & Mental Health
The Internet has produced a rapid escalation of dangerous cults, coercive “spiritual” groups, and new religious movements, as well as all kinds of scams. Private companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google have failed to enforce their own Terms of Service agreements and perform their civic duty of protecting people. In fact, such tech giants actually profit from the immense illegal, fraudulent and hazardous content posted on their sites (“religious” and otherwise). Our government has failed to protect its citizenry – we the people – from dangerous individuals who falsely advertise themselves on the Internet as trustworthy, and our government has failed to protect us from the tech giant businesses which profit from enabling and empowering these dangerous frauds. Therefore, our legislative representatives need to finally step up and truly represent our best interests by passing laws which fulfill their most basic duty: protecting people from those who are dangerous.
On May 8, 2017, bipartisan New Jersey legislators passed an act requiring the Departments of Children and Families and Human Services “to jointly study predatory alienation and its effects on young adults and senior citizens” (https://legiscan.com/NJ/text/S2562/2016). In March, 2020 bipartisan New Jersey legislators took a big step toward protecting its state’s citizens from online predators. The New Jersey legislature took the results of the 2017 study and proposed the “New Jersey Predatory Alienation Prevention and Consensual Response Act.” One section of the proposed bill reads:
Predatory alienation tactics and other forms of undue influence are commonly used by cults, religious sects, gangs, extremist groups, human traffickers, sexual predators, domestic abusers, and other similar persons and groups, as a means to recruit members, carry out crimes, spread their belief systems, advocate their political agendas, or simply impose their will on, and exert power, control, and supremacy over, victims.
The full text of the New Jersey bill: Click Here
Every state needs to enact a bill similar to New Jersey’s proposed bill! This bill enables family members, friends, school and college officials, law enforcement officers, and others to legally compel those who have been lured and influenced by predatory alienation tactics into intervention counseling and mental health treatment.
New Jersey’s bill, if enacted into law, will pave the way for much needed and long overdue mental health reform laws that not only address getting mandatory appropriate treatment – short-term or long-term treatment – for those people who fall prey to predators but also address mandatory mental health treatment processes – short-term or long-term treatment – for the predators themselves. Predators who use religion, for example, to form abusive cults/coercive groups/new religious movements often exhibit clear, observable signs of dangerous, severe and persistent pathological conditions and even dangerous, severe and persistent psychotic conditions. Since our mental health system is at best broken and at worst virtually non-existent, our state and federal legislators need to enact good sense mental health reform laws that are preventative not reactionary. Some severe mental health conditions, whether severe psychopathy, sociopathy, or severe psychotic conditions (e.g., schizophrenia) are genetic and/or organic and as such are persistent, degenerative, and terminal, like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and dementia. The sad reality is that as yet there is no recovery possible for severely mentally disturbed individuals. Consistent, monitored treatment can at best lessen the symptoms in some cases. A significant part of any mental health reform law must create easier long-term and permanent commitment processes for severely, persistently mentally disturbed individuals – dangerous psychopaths, sociopaths and psychotics – to be placed into competent and compassionate private mental health treatment facilities overseen by the state in which they operate (just as private nursing homes currently operate under state oversight). As a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights I just as strongly support the enactment of sane gun laws to prohibit anyone diagnosed with dangerous, severe and persistent mental health conditions from obtaining guns.
The following resources offer more information on mental health issues:
- Insane Consequences, How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, D. J. Jaffe, Prometheus Books, 2017.
- “Involuntary treatment and involuntary commitment laws: basis in law and history,” D.J. Jaffe, Read The Article
- “Toward rational commitment laws: Committed to help,” Rael Jean Isaac and D.J. Jaffe, Read The Article
- Madness in the Streets, How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill, Rael Jean Isaac and Virginia Armat, Treatment Advocacy Center, 1990.
- American Psychosis, How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System, E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.
- “Recovering from a Narcissist,” Shahida Arabi, M.A.,
“They can even infiltrate fields like counseling or religious and spiritual leadership in order to access a greater supply of victims, disguising themselves as competent professionals or “gurus” all while hunting for prey.”
Read The Article
For clarity sake I am not stating that every person who operates as a religious leader without any qualifications is severely mentally disturbed, but I am stating that there are plenty of horrific examples that demonstrate that many people who call themselves by a religious title for which they have no qualifications have exhibited clear indications of being mentally imbalanced or even severely mentally disturbed. Therefore, the proposed Clergy Authentication Bill in this website is aimed at providing protections to us all and penalties against those who use religious titles without qualifications. Validly ordained clergy/ministers should want and support the enactment of a clergy authentication law so as to give credibility to their own profession. Our state and federal legislators need to propose the Clergy Authentication Bill included in this website or propose a similar bill and get that bill enacted into law.
The Role of States’ Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Offices
Every states’ attorney general office should have a division that handles complaints of sexual abuse and other crimes committed by those claiming to have or who actually have a religious title. States’ attorney general offices should then investigate those credible complaints and turn over for prosecution all valid complaints of sexual abuse and other crimes committed by those using religious titles.
States’ attorney general offices and U.S. Attorney offices should also apply Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws against religious figures and/or religious organizations that have demonstrated they are using the cloak of religion to commit a variety of crimes.
A Fair and Equitable Balance of Rights
Fairness, good sense, and justice need to be practiced in order to differentiate between those who use religion to commit crimes or civil offenses versus those who practice the teachings of their religion which are not crimes or civil offenses. Some people may take offense at centuries-old, specifically-defined religious belief systems regarding interpersonal relationships and issues of morality. But as yet we still have a U.S. Constitution that provides the right of religious beliefs and practices which do not violate our criminal laws or anyone’s civil rights. For example, a person demanding that a Jewish kosher deli or Muslim halal meat market serve ham sandwiches is unreasonable, disrespectful of religious rights, and violating the constitutional rights and protections of the owners of that Jewish kosher deli or Muslim halal meat market. There are plenty of other food businesses that have no religious restrictions about serving ham sandwiches. In other words, a ham-sandwich-yearning-person’s constitutional rights are not being denied, discriminated against, or in any way violated simply because a particular Jewish or Muslim food market does not serve foods that violate the particular religious beliefs of the owners of those food markets – and our U.S. Supreme Court has cited this very line of reasoning in the justices’ rulings in favor of those exercising their religious rights in public. The same fairness, respect and good sense applies for the protection of other similar religious beliefs and practices.
There is a smorgasbord of religious beliefs and practices and houses of worship in this country, and no one is legally compelled to adhere to a particular belief system or maintain membership in a particular religious organization. For a person to demand that an adherent of a particular religious organization which has centuries-old specifically-defined beliefs and practices violate those beliefs and practices so as to cater to another person’s differing religious and/or moral beliefs is simply unreasonable, and unconstitutional. A very simple solution is for a person to simply avoid or unaffiliate with any particular religious organization and its adherents due to disagreements rather than demand that the religious organization and its adherents change its beliefs and practices for that individual. Such unreasonable – and unconstitutional – demands can be interpreted as that person deliberately targeting and initiating persecution against people who hold to centuries-old religious beliefs and practices. Fair and just laws and court rulings maintain a reasonable balance of interests for the good of individuals and society.
Whether clergy authentication laws ever become a reality, every individual who comes into contact with someone using a religious title should inquire into the authenticity of that person’s use of such a title. No matter how pious, “insightful,” “spiritual,” scripture-quoting, and full of “good deeds” someone may appear to be, if that person does not have any degree from a valid seminary or religious institution then that person simply has no business misrepresenting themselves to others by using a self-ordained religious title. Worse, if that person denigrates religious institutions and claims to be more knowledgeable and superior than validly ordained clerics or anyone in religious institutions, that is a clear warning that such a person shows traits of being a delusional narcissistic religious fraud, and abuse of power and influence are often if not always linked with religious fraud. Every leader of a cult/coercive group/new religious movement starts as an obscure figure and typically uses dishonest means to deceive and lure in anyone they can, especially those who may be experiencing a personal trauma and are emotionally/mentally/spiritually vulnerable. Personal responsibility requires that individuals should know the traits of religious frauds so as to avoid them at all costs, and concern about the welfare of others requires that individuals should sound the alarm about religious frauds.