Scientology guards its high profile in Florida Mecca

Boston Globe, January 3, 1999

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The city buses chugging past downtown crowds three weeks ago bore strange and startling messages on the sides: "Think for Yourself. Quit Scientology," said one. "Doubt is Not a Crime," said another. "Run, don't walk -- Quit Scientology."

In some communities, the advertisements might have been puzzling and meaningless. But in Clearwater, where the population of 110,000 includes perhaps as many as 10,000 adherents to the Church of Scientology, they were fighting words.

"That's like saying, 'Blacks, get out of town,'" said Scientology spokeswoman Pat Jones, who is an African-American. Scientologists deluged the homes of City Council and Transit Authority members with complaints. Within a day, the ads were gone.

Perhaps at no time has the relationship between the Church of Scientology and city leaders been so delicate since the nouveau religion decided to make this sleepy Gulf Coast town its spiritual headquarters 25 years ago.

Officials would like to embrace the church as a key mover in the revitalization of downtown. Pinellas County officials were looking on when the church broke ground Nov. 21 for its $45 million "Super Power Project"'s 300,000-square-foot facility for Scientologists that will be the third-largest building in town.

Just a week earlier, the state attorney had filed charges accusing the church of complicity in the 1995 death of a 36-year-old believer. Lisa McPherson was pronounced dead on arrival at a New Port Richey hospital after being kept in isolation at the Scientologists' Fort Harrison 45 minutes away in Clearwater.

The coming trial -- a status conference is scheduled for Tuesday in St. Petersburg -- promises to be a low point in the long history of acrimony over the religion's presence here. And it will raise serious questions about the way the church deals with its own affairs and those of the community.

Frank Oliver, a Miami graphics designer who leads a group called Former Scientologists Speaking Out that had rented the bus space, says the Transit Authority's quick decision to kill the ads underscores the situation.

"How does saying 'doubt is not a crime' infringe on their rights?" Oliver asks. "How much power does the church exert on local government?"

Clearwater is the religious retreat for the church, whose membership is either the 8 million worldwide that it claims, for the 200,000 that critics assert. Los Angeles, where Hollywood stars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise are prominent Scientologists, is the administrative headquarters. The street in front of the Los Angeles office was recently renamed L. Ron Hubbard Way after Scientology's founder.

Whatever its actual membership, it is undisputed that Scientology draws thousands to Clearwater every year to stay in one of the church's three hotels and to undergo the complicated and secretive counseling process, called auditing, that is the core of Scientology. Church spokeswoman Jones say 85,000 people have taken courses or joined the church through the Miami-area office in Coral Gables since it was founded 40 years ago.

Scientology's history in Clearwater began in 1975, when Southern Land Sales and Development paid $2.3 million cash for the Fort Harrison Hotel. The buyers at first said they were with a group called United Churches of Florida. The new owners turned out to be the Church of Scientology.

Founder Hubbard wanted a "land base" for his church, which in 20 years had become a fast-growing organization, already drawing adherents and critics worldwide.

Hubbard, who died in 1986, was a science-fiction and adventure writer who wrote for pulp publications. He turned to book writing and philosophy, and in 1960 published what turned out to be the genesis of Scientology, a self-help book called "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." It decried formal psychiatry while advocating its own blend of therapy and treatments. It became an instant best seller.

Hubbard reportedly once said in a lecture, "If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." Church members say Hubbard never said that -- it was George Orwell, and they have witness statements to prove it, they say -- but there's no doubt Hubbard's church has made a fortune.

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