As the church transforms its “spiritual headquarters” in Fla., it’s also transforming its image. Reaching out, Scientology shows a softer side
CLEARWATER, Fla. – After decades of lawsuits, secrecy and confrontation, Clearwater is seeing the softer side of Scientology.
To most Philadelphians, this Gulf Coast city of 110,000 is the site of Phillies spring training, home of perennial baseball optimism. But Clearwater has another claim to fame: It is the religious headquarters of the Church of Scientology, a magnet for believers much as Salt Lake City is for Mormons or Mecca is for Muslims.
Scientology, which made the city its “spiritual base” 30 years ago and now dominates downtown, is seeking broader acceptance as it continues to expand. While some neighbors still dismiss it as an unwanted cult, it is joining civic groups and opening its current headquarters – the restored landmark Fort Harrison Hotel – for tours, weddings and banquets.
The new openness comes as the church is completing a huge new headquarters two blocks from City Hall. The Flag Building, occupying a full city block, is the centerpiece of its $160 million construction push here.
Clearwater and Scientology have a long and sometimes contentious history. But while the organization’s hundreds of uniformed staffers and blue-and-white buses are still much in evidence in the sleepy downtown, there is less friction now than in the past.
“They have been very active in trying to improve their image,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “They’ve made an effort to be more visible in the community… . They’re active in everything from Boys and Girls Club to the aquarium to the downtown development board.”
“I do not believe what they believe, and I’ve told them that,” Hibbard said. “But I represent all the people of Clearwater, and we’re open to having a dialogue with everybody.”
That’s a significant shift.
When Scientology arrived in 1975, it did so under an assumed name, and for years local police maintained “criminal intelligence” files on it. In 1979, 11 church officials were convicted of conspiring to steal federal government documents. The same year, 3,000 people gathered at City Hall to protest the church’s presence in town. In 1980, the St. Petersburg Times, a frequent critic, won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting on Scientology.
In 1982, city government held hearings on allegations that the church was a cult. The Internal Revenue Service and Pinellas County, of which Clearwater is the seat, regularly demanded taxes on its operations, while Scientology insisted it deserved a religious exemption – which it finally won in 1993.
In 1995, the death of church member Lisa McPherson, 36, in Clearwater focused renewed attention on the group. McPherson died after 17 days in the care of Scientologists. Paramedics had taken her to a hospital after a minor traffic accident, but she left with Scientology officials, who wanted her to avoid psychiatric treatment, which violates church teachings. Doctors had said the woman was battling a mental breakdown.
Criminal charges were filed against church officials by the state but were dropped in 2000; a wrongful-death suit brought by McPherson’s family against the church was settled for an undisclosed amount.
That was then. This is now:
Last month, for the fourth consecutive year, local politicians and businesspeople joined Scientologists for a gala dinner at the Fort Harrison to celebrate the hotel’s anniversary. The church is a governor of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development organization. Scientologists sit on boards of such organizations as the regional chamber of commerce, the Clearwater economic development committee, and the arts foundation. They sponsor Boy and Girl Scout troops, and are fund-raisers and contributors to local, state and federal politicians, especially Republicans.
“They want to be players,” said Mary Repper, a retired political consultant and lobbyist (her clients included the Phillies) hired by the church in 2002 to help improve its image.
“It has been a long, grueling road for them,” she said. “But I think the stigma is gone.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Most people in Clearwater look at it in a cultlike fashion,” said the Rev. William Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. “Certainly those of us who are evangelical Christians view it as a big, worldwide cult… . They have a very soft, clever, subtle approach. But the amount of money and the clout they have is a bit overwhelming. At some point, you wonder what the end-game is.”
The church’s own research in 2003 showed significant hostility remained. To bolster a change-of-venue request in the McPherson trial, the church hired surveyors to interview shoppers at a local mall about Scientology. They found 82.4 percent held unfavorable views; only 11.8 percent had anything good to say.
Scientology, founded in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, describes itself as the world’s fastest-growing religion and says it has eight million members worldwide. Its critics say the number is much smaller.
Its adherents don’t worship a deity or pray. They believe that people are immortal spirits and that a progression of self-improvement techniques and counseling sessions, known as “auditing,” can help them live more productive, satisfying lives. The goal is to become “clear” – free of mental blocks caused by painful subconscious memories.
Members pay escalating fees, or “fixed donations,” for auditing sessions, ranging from $200 for a week of beginner training to thousands of dollars for the most advanced auditing.
Church officials estimate that 10,000 Scientologists live in the Tampa Bay area, including 6,000 in Clearwater, and that 15,000 others visit annually for spiritual training or auditing.
Why Clearwater? It is close to the Caribbean, where the ships of the marine-based organization were before the move, Shaw said; it has a gentle climate, is near a major airport, and is “out of the hectic day-to-day grind” of a big city. (Scientology’s top officials remain in Los Angeles, the church’s administrative headquarters.)
In Clearwater, the church is the biggest property owner downtown with 21 buildings. Most house visiting members and the 1,400 staffers who work here. The church paid $600,000 in taxes last year, making it the biggest downtown taxpayer, even though two-thirds of its property is tax-exempt.
The Fort Harrison Hotel was the first building the Scientologists bought in 1975. Closed and deteriorating then, it has been restored to its former grandeur, made over in muted blues, reds and golds, with an auditorium, restaurants, auditing rooms, librarylike areas filled with drilling students, and an exhibit room extolling Hubbard’s life and church charitable works.
Across the street is the new Flag Building, set to open in December 2006. It will feature a public ground-floor museum, 300 auditing rooms, and a dining hall for 1,140. A $40 million, 3,600-seat auditorium is planned for an adjacent lot.
“We made it clear we wanted peace,” said Shaw, reflecting on the church’s new neighborliness. “Nobody wanted to fight anymore. We are known for our propensity to defend ourselves, but our objective is to live in peace and harmony.”
Mayor Hibbard said the shift from rejection to acceptance was by no means complete. On a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being full acceptance, he said community sentiment was 0 to 1 when Scientologists arrived.
“Now, I’d say it’s 4 to 5.”
Feb. 24, 2005
Paul Nussbaum, Inquirer Staff Writer