But Sunday the group found itself defending its beliefs and practices against allegations of racism, anti-Semitism and child abuse.
Members of the Twelve Tribes community in Hamburg, as well as group leaders from out of town, appeared at a public forum over the sale of their Common Ground bakery products in the Lexington Co-op on Elmwood Avenue.
“We have a life we really feel is worth living,” Joseph Reilly, a Twelve Tribes member from Oakhill, told the 100 people who attended the forum in Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue. “We’re just normal people.”
Critics, including several people who spoke at Sunday’s forum, tell a far different story. They claim the group is a controlling cult that spreads a racist, sexist and homophobic ideology and, as a common practice, disciplines its children with switches.
Since its founding 30 years ago, the group has been fined for child labor violations in this state and involved in child custody cases arising from estranged spouses who tried to leave the group.
Members of the group acknowledged Sunday that disciplining their children with “balloon sticks” is a common practice, but that none of the children ever is abused. They also refuted charges that the group is racist and anti-Semitic.
“There’s not a thread of anti-Semitism in the community,” said Daniel Cohen, a Twelve Tribes member from Ithaca. And “no, we do not believe homosexuals deserve the death penalty.”
The allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia and child abuse are based, in large part, on quotes attributed to Elbert Eugene Spriggs, Twelve Tribes founder.
The child labor violations grew out of a state investigation in 2001 that included the Twelve Tribes community in Hamburg. The state Labor Department found violations at the group’s Hudson Valley businesses, but none in Hamburg.
The allegations of child abuse also led to a 1984 raid on a Twelve Tribes community in Vermont, where 90 state troopers and 50 social workers took more than 100 children into custody.
The children were returned to the community later that same day, the case was dismissed, and the judge called the raid a “grossly negligent misuse of state power.”
Dorothy Huggins, an African-American member of the Twelve Tribes community here, said the charges of racism and sexism run contrary to what life is really like for her.
“I’m a happy member of the Twelve Tribes,” said Huggins, who appeared with her husband, James. “I chose this life. It was a voluntary choice for me to join the Twelve Tribes.”
The forum was held as part of the Lexington Co-op’s consideration of whether to continue selling Common Ground bakery products. It expects to make a decision in two to three weeks.