November 21, 2003

12 Tribes Hosts Forum

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They came together to set the record straight, ask questions, tell stories and exercise their First-Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

They, of course, are the members of the Twelve Tribes community.

Last night, they held an open forum in the Holiday Inn on South Cayuga Street, attracting approximately 50 people from various parts of the city.

Rarely can the arrival of a religious group shake a city as that of the Twelve Tribes in Ithaca. Since the group moved in, local newspapers and community leaders as well as college students and professors have questioned its political, religious and economic practices and, perhaps most damaging, called the Twelve Tribes a cult.

At the core of the argument seems to be a discussion of the relationship between freedom of religion and one city’s unspoken moral code.

“In the popular sense of the word, they’re not a cult. You could say that the Armed Forces or the Catholic Church or a football team is a cult. The term doesn’t mean anything. It’s used by people who would want to denigrate a particular group, and especially new religions,” said Prof. Richard Robbins, anthropology, State University of New York at Plattsburgh, who has been “working with” the group for 12 years.

And so, last night the group called together interested members of the Ithaca community to participate in an open forum on “Who are the Twelve Tribes?”

The air in the inn’s Cayuga Room was fraught with tension as people waited for the forum to begin. Stories of friends of friends who knew people who had to be “deprogrammed” flew in whispered tones around the four concentric circles set up to facilitate discussion, as a Twelve Tribes member promised that the cookies and mat