Scientologists describe their religion as a cathartic journey toward happiness and clarity of mind. Church of Scientology critics call it kooky science fiction disguised as religion.
Whatever you believe, the church says it is growing.
Although the church’s membership remains a much-debated mystery, its land holdings tell the story of a robust organization in the midst of a new chapter of growth.
Worldwide, Scientologists say they have bought 21 buildings they plan to turn into churches.
Still, some former Scientologists and observers insist the church’s membership is depleted, down dramatically over the past 20 years. They contend the church is using its financial muscle to buy buildings and create a false sense that the organization is thriving.
Since the mid-1970s, Scientology has become a real estate behemoth in the Tampa Bay area. The church spent tens of millions of dollars to buy and renovate about 40 properties, mostly for its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.
But Clearwater was intended to be a Mecca for true believers, not a center for recruiting members.
So Scientology’s Tampa church is leading a new expansion in Florida, with plans for about a half-dozen Life Improvement Centers in the next year. The church aims to expand its outreach into smaller towns and among the black and Hispanic communities, which critics say is an effort to make inroads among those with little knowledge of its controversial past.
Scientology’s first new center will be in Plant City, a community steeped in Christian faith, where towering Baptist and Methodist churches dominate the downtown landscape.
Already, some residents are wary of their new neighbors, and their past.
PLANT CITY – In a town built by the railroad and made famous by strawberries, Christianity might be Plant City’s most thriving enterprise.
The town has more than three dozen Christian churches; six start with the word “First.” There are no synagogues, no mosques.
In the historic Whistle Stop cafe downtown, customers stuffed with deli sandwiches and brownie sundaes pay their bills at a counter that features a bowl seeking donations for a Christian youth camp. A waiter wears a baseball hat that says, “I Love Jesus.”
Plant City – renowned for its festival that pays homage to all things strawberry – wouldn’t seem fertile ground for an expansion of the Church of Scientology, a religion that traces the genesis of human misery to a vengeful alien ruler named Xenu and a galactic genocide that raged 75 million years ago. Scientology teaches that the evil residue of this battle survives in the souls of mankind and that it has the key to freedom from human suffering – for a price.
Now Scientology is moving to Plant City in a big way, set to become a tiny outpost in what church leaders say is a large push to expand in Florida.
Downtown Plant City will soon be anchored with one of Scientology’s Life Improvement Centers, complete with classrooms, stress tests and the works of its science-fiction-writing founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Someday soon, those walking along the brick streets of downtown could be asked by a Scientologist whether they would like to take a personality test, a gateway into the world of Scientology.
Tampa Church Leads Expansion
Clearwater is Scientology’s spiritual headquarters, but the Tampa church will lead its effort to build centers throughout Florida.
The Church of Scientology has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying and renovating buildings in past years, including tens of millions of dollars in Clearwater since it came to the area in 1975.
Over the next year, the church plans to buy buildings and open similar Life Improvement Centers in Lakeland, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville.
“There’s an explosion of interest in Scientology,” said Pat Harney, a Scientology spokeswoman. “We are only going where the interest is.”
Scientology critics, former members and some Plant City residents aren’t so sure. They insist Scientology is nothing more than a money-hungry, mind-controlling cult desperate to find recruits as membership declines. They say the purchase of buildings is a ruse, a publicity stunt designed to convey a sense of vibrancy.
“It’s all about perception,” said Rick Ross, a cult expert who has researched Scientology for years. “If you can’t impress with new members, impress with new buildings.”
Scientology leaders disagree with any assertion that they are struggling to find new members.
“There is no disputing that Scientology is growing,” Harney said.
For proof, she said the church’s new building boom is paid for entirely with member donations, a sign of a thriving membership.
A Scientology fact sheet notes that the Tampa church has 210 staff members, up from 40 in 2003.
For many people, their most memorable brush with Scientology came in June 2005 when “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer had a tense exchange with longtime member Tom Cruise. The actor was defending his earlier criticism of Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants, which Scientology forbids.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
For younger people, their only knowledge of Scientology might have come from watching the episode of “South Park” in which one of the foul-mouthed characters was cast as a reincarnated Hubbard, lambasting Cruise and many of the church’s most sacred and secret teachings.
But behind the flashes of celebrity intrigue is a highly secretive, cash-rich organization with its financial headquarters in Los Angeles and a retreat for its highest-level members in Clearwater.
The church makes money by charging members for classes, purification sauna therapies and counseling, called auditing. Scientology auditing can create a feeling of euphoria or relief, which can become addictive, said Steven Hassan and other cult experts.
Auditing can become expensive, as well, sometimes costing more than $500 an hour. Former members said it can cost more than $300,000 to achieve the top levels of Scientology.
At the highest levels, Scientologists are guaranteed fantastical powers, such as the ability to fly outside their bodies and move inanimate objects with their minds.
Scientologists dispute that auditing is a form of mind control and resent those who refer to the church as a cult.
“That’s been debunked,” Harney said. “Scientology wakes you up, and it’s insulting when people use a discriminatory tone. Scientologists are some of the brightest, most intelligent people.”
The church’s wealth has remained a closely held secret since an early 1990s IRS decision declared it a religious organization, no longer required to make annual financial disclosures.
The church disclosed in 1993 – the last year it had to declare income for federal tax purposes – that it had $398 million in assets and took in $300 million a year. Scientology watchers, even the most skeptical, said the organization is thought to have billions of dollars in property and cash.
“From a financial standpoint, Scientology is not floundering or in any way broke,” Ross said. “It remains quite solvent, very wealthy.”
The church owns 36 properties in Pinellas County, with an assessed value of $63.8 million, and more than half are exempt from property taxes because they are used for religious purposes. The church owns five properties in Hillsborough County, valued at more than $3.3 million. All are tax-free. That doesn’t count outreach missions, such as one that recently opened in Seminole Heights, which are often rented and run on donations.
Like many large companies, the Church of Scientology often negotiates secretly, sometimes creating a shell company with an assumed name to prevent the owner from inflating the price or the sale from causing a stir.
For instance, in California it bought the 500-acre Gilman Hot Springs resort in 1978 under the names the Scottish Highland Quietude Society and Western States Scientific Association. It bought its first buildings in Clearwater under an assumed name, which many thought to be an effort to dodge controversy.
The Church of Scientology has a history of buying old, run-down buildings, such as the Frenchman’s Market building in Plant City, the old cigar factories it owns in West Tampa and its Life Improvement Center in Ybor City. Older buildings are generally cheaper to renovate than buying land and constructing facilities, said Matthew Pearse, Scientology’s design director in Clearwater.
The church always pays cash and sometimes pays much more than the assessed value. Scientologists paid $620,000 to buy the 1910 building in Plant City, which has an assessed value of $362,000. The two-story building had been a bank and a Hooker’s department store before becoming a flea market, called Frenchman’s Market.
Scientologists generally restore the buildings to give them a feel of their historic glory days, while incorporating some of the area’s past. The logo on the Plant City center includes strawberries and railroad tracks, to commemorate the town’s long and storied connection to the railroad.
“It makes it their church,” Pearse said.
Skeptics such as Arnaldo Lerma, a former member who published secret church texts on the Internet, said Scientology is moving into smaller towns where buildings are cheaper, community leaders are desperate to revitalize and scrutiny is generally mild. He said the church has aggressively recruited the poor, blacks and migrants, some who may not be familiar with the church’s past.
“It’s all about money,” he said. “It’s the last great con.”
In Plant City, residents have met their new neighbors with a good dose of skepticism – or worse.
A few ministers see the presence of Scientology as no less than an assault on the faith and values of their community. Some church leaders have preached about the potential for spiritual warfare, with 33,000 souls at stake.
The Rev. David L. Martin, associate pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church, advised his parishioners to treat the Scientologists with “kindness, dignity and respect.” But he warned members to watch out for Scientologists and their efforts to win converts.
Martin and other Plant City residents share a similar sentiment: They don’t like that Scientologists are coming to town, but they acknowledge there’s little they can do to stop them.
David Simmonds, an antiques shop owner and leader in the Historic Downtown Merchants Association, said there are concerns about Scientologists soliciting on the streets, which could annoy customers.
For now, Simmonds and others are waiting to see how their new neighbors will change life in Plant City. “Obviously, the Scientologists haven’t opened yet,” Simmonds said.
Harney, the church spokeswoman, said Scientologists have largely received a warm welcome from many in the Plant City area, including some church leaders. She said her organization has offered to join with other churches in charitable work.
Harney also contends that a Scientologist can be a Christian, too. Scientology merely provides the tools to improve spiritual exploration, she said.
“We are not trying to change your faith,” she said. “We are trying to improve your spiritual awareness.”
So is Scientology really growing? Church officials say it is.
The Church of Scientology, founded in December 1953, reports to have more than 10 million members worldwide and has claimed for decades to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. At a recent international meeting, the Church of Scientology of Tampa was recognized as its fastest-growing branch in the world.
Church leaders won’t reveal specifics about membership in the Plant City area. Harney said community interest was strong at the Scientology booth at Plant City’s Strawberry Festival.
Harney noted that about 1 percent of people in the region have bought Hubbard’s self-help books, particularly “Dianetics.”
Hubbard, who died in 1986, was a science-fiction writer who turned into a philosopher and self-improvement guru. In 1960, he published an instant best seller and what became a founding text in Scientology, a self-help book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.” The book criticized psychiatry while advocating Hubbard’s own brand of therapy and treatments.
Skeptics and former members said that by noting book sales and anecdotal examples, church leaders are hiding the real truth about Scientology: Membership has declined sharply from its heyday 20 years ago.
Scientology’s own publications – “Celebrity,” “Source,” “Advance” and others – show that the number of people seeking its services peaked in the mid-1980s and has steeply declined since then, said Kristi Wachter, a former Scientologist who lives in San Francisco and has become a vocal detractor of the church.
Critics and former members say there are fewer than 200,000 Scientologists worldwide. City University of New York’s American Religious Identification Survey indicates there are 45,000 to 55,000 Scientologists in the United States.
In Canada, where census surveys ask for religious affiliation, just 1,525 reported being Scientologists. By comparison, about 20,000 people identified themselves as being Jedi, a fictitious mind-control faith that originated in “Star Wars” movies.
Ross and Lerma said the Church of Scientology is emptying its main offices and deploying its dwindling army to Life Improvement Centers as a new phase in its recruitment drive.
Scientologists said staff members from Tampa will operate the Plant City center, at least initially.
Harney said it’s common for churches of all faiths to use existing staff to open outreach centers.
Jerry Lofstrom, who owns the Whistle Stop cafe, doubts Scientology will thrive in Plant City.
“They might penetrate the vulnerable,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve ever moved into a town like Plant City, steeped in faith and Christian ideals.”
Les Scates, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot, agrees.
“Every person has a built-in desire for spiritual fulfillment,” said Scates, 67. “Sometimes they look for it in the right place; sometimes they look for it in the wrong place.”
Reporter Dave Nicholson contributed to this report.