Over the past century, a bizarre twist of legal misinterpretation has expanded the Constitution's Establishment Clause from merely separating church and state to scrubbing religion from public life. But in some small to midsize municipalities scattered throughout the United States, religious communities are proving that federal standards need not subvert local values.
These groups have not only thwarted the strict federal standard for church-state separation; they have secured state sponsorship of religious or spiritual activities, government support ranging from simple tax breaks to functional theocracies.
In Clearwater, Fla., Scientologists have bought up large sections of the city's downtown, flooded the boards of various civic groups, and become a major player in local politics-all part of the church's plan to "take control" of the city, according to secret documents seized decades ago during an FBI investigation.
In southeast Iowa, followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded Maharishi Vedic City six years ago, establishing an independent town governed and inhabited by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
And in a region straddling the northern border of the Arizona Strip, the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., are home to thousands of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamy-supporting spinoff from mainstream Mormonism.
Each of these three communities has faced opposition from neighbors and surrounding authorities. But their continued existence testifies that, despite recent squeamishness over religion in the public square, parts of the country remain true to America's historical identity as a religious liberty theme park.
The concept of religious or spiritual-based cities is hardly foreign to the nation's history. Puritans founded Boston in 1630 as "a city on a hill" and later banished dissidents. Dozens of Unitarian, Shaker, and transcendentalist villages dotted the American landscape in the mid 19th century-none more prominent than Brook Farm, a socialist commune in the Massachusetts countryside that attracted such eminent idealists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Subsequent religious cities sprang up throughout the 1890s, including the social-gospel-advocating Christian Commonwealth Colony in Georgia, the Methodist-based Society of the Burning Bush in eastern Texas, and John Alexander Dowie's Pentecostal Zion City, Ill., which grew to 8,000 residents and sparked the faith-healing movement of the early 20th century.
Such Christian iterations of isolationist living stood in contrast to the biblical charge to remain in the world. The very concept of a Christian commune does not square with Christ's call to salt and illuminate the earth.
But for Scientologists in Clearwater, TM practitioners in Iowa, and FLDS members on the Arizona Strip, such injunctions against isolationism do not apply.
When Timothy Brown, pastor of Countryside Baptist Church in Clearwater, recently sought permission to conduct evangelistic surveys at a local mall, the shopping center's officials turned him down. That verdict surprised the former Texas minister, who had faced little resistance to such practices elsewhere in the Bible Belt.
But as Brown soon discovered, Clearwater is a long way from Texas. Housed in the very same mall is a self-help kiosk operated by the Church of Scientology.
About 12,000 Scientologists live in this 110,000-person Gulf Coast city 20 miles west of Tampa. That percentage might seem less than overwhelming, but a high concentration of church members downtown dramatically raises both their visibility and influence.
The church owns dozens of properties in the city's urban core, many of them tax-exempt. Its new seven-story Flag Building fills an entire block, ample room to house Scientology's superpower program, which purports to endow high-level church members with supernatural abilities.
Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, brought his new religion to Clearwater in 1975, secretly purchasing property downtown and hiding his intentions to rebirth the struggling city as the church's international headquarters. As local residents caught on to the scheme, they organized large protests and commissioned a special police task force to investigate the church's cult-like practices.
Scientologists believe higher consciousness is attainable through "auditing," an extremely expensive and intense counseling technique during which members are asked to relive their darkest memories. The personal information shared in these sessions is recorded and sometimes used against defecting members who speak ill of the church. As Scientologists pay the exorbitant prices necessary to reach subsequent levels of consciousness, they learn secret doctrines reminiscent of cheap science fiction novels.
Despite such bizarre teachings, community angst in Clearwater has settled down in recent years. Many citizens remain wary of the uniformly dressed church members filling city sidewalks and public spaces, but active opposition is now rare.
Scientology officials at the Flag Service Organization did not return WORLD's request for comment, but spokesperson Pat Harney recently told the Associated Press that the church has "done some growing up; we've gotten to know people; we're better understood." Retired Clearwater police detective Ray Emmons, the chief investigator of local Scientologists in the 1980s and a longtime outspoken critic, is now resigned to let sleeping dogs lie, telling WORLD that Scientology is in his past.
Many local politicians and civic leaders have likewise ceased to criticize the church's presence. "They've become part of the community because they reached out and made an effort," county commissioner Susan Latvala told AP. "It's really changed in the last 10 or 12 years."
Maharishi Vedic City
In 1993, Rogers Badgett and his wife Candace opened the Raj Resort, a health spa and restaurant outside Fairfield, Iowa. Less than a decade later, they helped build a city around that business.
Maharishi Vedic City is an incorporated social experiment into the civic value of Transcendental Meditation, which purports to raise levels of consciousness through silent internal focus. Badgett has practiced TM for 30 years and swears by its effectiveness. He now sits on the town's city council, alongside four other TM practitioners.
The roughly 500 residents of Vedic City are encouraged to meditate for 20 minutes twice daily in citywide group sessions before and after each work day. The town's youth practice meditation in the local private school.
But unlike homogenized religious communities, Vedic City boasts residents from wide-ranging faith backgrounds. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are among the TM devotees.
The town's communications officer Steven Yellin told WORLD that TM is often mistaken for a religion but can, he claims, function alongside any particular faith or no faith at all: "If you're Jewish and you meditate, you become a better Jew. If you're Catholic and you meditate, you become a better Christian. If you have stress, if you have a weak mind, if you're overshadowed by things in life, how can you really be a good Christian? You have to be a good person first."
Yellin, himself Jewish, attends a local synagogue in Fairfield. No religious buildings have yet opened in Vedic City, where all structures face east, adhere to Sthapatya Vedic architectural principles, and are aligned along 10 concentric circles. The town's initial plans include two large golden domes at its center for the separate meditation of men and women.
TM Practitioners believe that if 10,000 people participate in the advanced meditative form of yogic flying, it will create peace and harmony throughout the world. Yogic flying amounts to cross-legged hopping, a practice Badgett says is scientifically proven to generate coherence of the mind and possibly even improve IQ.
"By taking your attention inward on a regular basis, you start to use more of your mental potential," Badgett explained. "The ultimate goal is to have everyone use as much of their own innate intelligence as possible and get over some of this war and hate. If people are more creative, then they're able to fulfill their own desires and don't have to go take somebody else's country or property."
When Elaine Tyler moved from Denver to St. George, Utah, five years ago and began a remodeling project on her new home, something about the building crew her contractor hired struck her as odd. For one, they dressed in terribly outdated clothing that reminded her of Amish culture. And the crew included a 10-year-old boy.
"I'm thinking, 'Why is this child running one of these power nail tools? Why isn't this kid in school?'" Tyler recalled.
Her contractor explained that the crew hailed from Hildale, which meant nothing to Tyler at the time. A year later, it came to mean her life's work as she founded the Hope Organization to help women and children transition out of Hildale's polygamous culture. Her program currently works with 75 former residents of Hildale and Colorado City, many of them young teenage boys expelled from the towns to preserve a higher ratio of women to men.
For almost a century, FLDS members have practiced plural marriage in these remote twin cities of several thousand residents-with only occasional intervention from outside law enforcement. In 1953, Arizona governor John Howard Pyle sent troops to raid the area, setting off a drawn-out legal battle that effected little to no change.
Last month, a Utah court convicted the sect's religious leader Warren Jeffs of two counts of conspiracy to commit rape for his role in the forced marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs also will stand trial in Arizona for alleged sexual conduct with a minor.
But such charges and convictions against the FLDS president and prophet have not stopped the community from practicing polygamy and isolating its people from contact with outsiders-though some families have now left the towns for church communes elsewhere. FLDS members rarely speak to media, and WORLD's efforts to contact local residents were unsuccessful.
Tyler has considered dropping leaflets from a helicopter into the towns with information about her organization, but she decided against it due to possible charges of littering or retaliation against the pilot.
Instead, she is helping establish a safe house in one of Hildale's old abandoned mansions-a rare refuge for defecting church members, given that local police and government officials are fellow members of the FLDS and have no interest in censuring church leaders. "They're running a theocracy," Tyler told WORLD. "And as long as they have their own city, they can do what they jolly well please."
Throughout the United States, local pockets of dense Muslim populations are pushing for special religious accommodations-and, in some spots, receiving them. The University of Michigan in Dearborn recently sparked controversy when it approved plans to install special footbaths for ritualistic Islamic washing. In San Diego, another Islamic community persuaded officials at Carver Elementary School to grant Muslim students a 15-minute break each afternoon for prayer.
Social and political commentators are often quick to cry foul over such accommodations, warning against a slippery slope to Shariah, the strict religious and legal code required in the Quran. These pundits point out the hidden agendas of many mainstream Islamic advocacy groups, which couch their mission for socio-religious control in terms of civil rights.
Indeed, recent U.S. prosecution against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development has exposed a number of prominent American Muslim charities as front groups for Islamism, the political movement seeking to impose a worldwide caliphate. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have all proven to maintain unsavory associations and relationships with terrorist organizations.
But such sinister motives are not shared throughout all Muslim-American communities. In fact, broad Muslim support for agencies like CAIR, MAS, and ISNA is waning in light of the recent revelations. M. Zhudi Jasser, founder and director of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, tells WORLD that most Muslims in America are unaware of the political aims driving many national Islamic groups.
Requests like footbaths or prayer breaks, therefore, do not necessarily come with radical intent. When the Indianapolis International Airport completes its new billion-dollar terminal in the fall of 2008, the floor-level sinks included in the bathrooms will not establish Shariah law, but simply spare the airport's high number of local Muslim cab drivers from awkwardly lifting their feet into sinks meant for hands.
Critics object to the idea of public money funding such an accommodation and argue that special treatment for Islam will trigger similar demands from scores of other religious sects. Of course, the idea of public institutions meeting the particular needs of specific local populations is nothing new. And Christians might welcome an increased acceptance of religious practice in the public square-provided it extends to Christianity.