Rapture Fraud?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has requested that the California Attorney General investigate Harold Camping’s tax exempt ministry for fraud and deceit over his fundraising on his rapture prophecy.

In a carefully crafted letter, the Foundation co-presidents argue:

Camping convinced droves of his loyal listeners and adherents that the end of the world was rapidly approaching… He capitalized on their fears and enlisted their pocketbooks in order to spread his doomsday message to the rest of the world, spending more than $100 million on billboards, a fleet of ad-wrapped RVs, and other advertising.

They cite numerous news reports of followers’ substantial financial losses, suicides, and even a case where a mother allegedly killed her children so as to avoid the tribulation. This, in the context of specific actions taken by Camping’s organization to continuing functioning after the Rapture date, such as filing documents to maintain its tax exempt status beyond the Rapture date, programming operations that proceeded as usual and even continued fundraising. These actions, contends the FFRF, “show that they neither behaved nor conducted business as if they sincerely believed that the world would end on May 21” and constitute “willful deception.”

Carving out a space between fraud and protected religious claims, the FFRF makes an important distinction:

Camping did not commit deceit and fraud in being wrong about the date of the Rapture; the question to be determined is whether he may have committed deceit or fraud in persuading his followers to donate often large sums of money to his organization based on a claim—that the world would definitely end on May 21, 2011 and he needed to advertise this “fact”—while objectively conducting his business as though he knew it to be untrue.

Sincerely held religious beliefs are Constitutionally protected, even if they are unlikely to be true. But if Camping and his organization can be shown to have defrauded followers for money, well, that’s an apocalyptic horse of a different color.