State pulls plug on exhibit

Display linked to Scientology

Chicago Tribune/December 3, 2003
By John Chase

The Blagojevich administration Tuesday ordered the removal from the Thompson Center of a controversial exhibit ridiculing psychiatry as a wicked profession with ties to Nazi Germany after officials learned that the group that erected the display was an offshoot of the Church of Scientology.

The group, which calls itself the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, agreed to dismantle the exhibit under protest only one day after it had been set up--with state permission--in the main atrium of the state office building in the Loop.

Officials of the agency that runs the Thompson Center said the group applied months ago to showcase the exhibit for a week in early December in connection with the anniversary of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Michael Rumman, director of the Department of Central Management Services, said the group did not at the time reveal its links to Scientology and only declared that its exhibit would deal with the history of psychiatry

"It appears they did not adequately represent themselves when they applied," said Rumman, who acknowledged that his agency made no effort to vet the group. "The Illinois administrative code says that exhibits may not promote religious philosophies and this clearly does."

Lynn Ward, local chapter leader of the Citizens Commission, acknowledged that it was founded by Scientology but was not run by the organization.

"There's nothing religious about this display," said Ward before packing up the items. "But because we have not disavowed any link to the Church of Scientology, they are asking us to leave. I think that's wrong."

Followers of Scientology consider their group a religion founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Critics contend it is a cultlike organization.

On its Internet site, the Citizens Commission describes itself as "a non-profit, public benefit organization dedicated to investigating and exposing psychiatric violations of human rights."

The display in the Thompson Center made only scant reference to the group's ties to Scientology. Its main focus was to challenge psychiatry, with materials charging that psychiatrists are "hooking our children on drugs." Such views are aspects of Scientology's belief structure.

"It is a cold, hard fact that psychiatry spawned the ideology which fired Hitler's mania, turned the Nazis into mass murderers and created the Holocaust," read one panel of the museumlike display that also featured photographs of what was alleged to be patients being abused. Pamphlets making similar arguments were distributed by members of the group to passersby.

Central Management Services officials said the display was ordered removed after they received several complaints that it was spreading misinformation and violated the separation of church and state.

Darrel Regier, director of research for the American Psychiatric Association, said the group's charges have no scientific basis. "They are taking a theological position that mental disorders do not exist," Regier said. "I think it's not an evidence-based position, it's a faith-based position."

The organization was paying $125 a day to use the atrium, and Rumman said it would only charge the group for Monday's use of the space. Government offices traditionally promote certain programs or initiatives in the atrium, though private and professional organizations are allowed to rent it as well.

Though the group's views may seem repugnant to some, Harvey Grossman, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said banning the display should raise eyebrows. "The state's behavior raises serious constitutional questions," said Grossman, who cautioned that he was speaking in general terms because he had not seen the exhibit.

As the display was being taken down, some visitors to the Thompson Center reading the placards had mixed reactions to the state's order. "I don't see any religion in any of this," said Robert Husko, 51 of Mundelein. "I don't know why they would ask them to take it down. I think some of it sounds true."

But Murray Katz, 41, of Chicago, whose father was a psychiatrist, said the information was misleading and offensive.

"Take it down, absolutely," he said. "It's offensive on many different levels and if this is part of their religious beliefs, I shouldn't be subjected to them in a government building."

Rumman pledged his department would do a better job scrutinizing organizations seeking in the future to use the Thompson Center for exhibits.

"We need to be doing more work on these organizations, and we will be doing more research on them," he said.

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