Church of Scientology seeks higher profile in Denver with new church

The Denver Post/June 23, 2012

The church's grand-opening celebration filled a city block near Coors Field with pomp and circumstance: white and blue balloons floating skyward, confetti shot from a cannon, cheering throngs. A seven-camera crew captured the Hollywood-style production by the Church of Scientology.

Denver Police Chief Robert White and City Councilman Albus Brooks offered warm endorsements — both working from talking points provided by the church.

Known for its celebrities and controversies, the Church of Scientology is taking a higher profile in Denver and other cities by renovating historic buildings and transforming them into gleaming new churches to serve members and the broader community.

As part of that effort, the church has successfully recruited community leaders to praise its drug-prevention programs, commitments to homeless initiatives and other outreach work.

The June 16 gala cut the ribbon on a 44,000-square-foot church in a 1916 building that originally housed the American Radiator Co.

The church paid $8.5 million in cash last year for the property in the 2300 block of Blake Street. Church officials say local members raised the money for the project but would not disclose its total cost.

The new building, known as an "ideal org," is one of 31 worldwide opened in recent years — the most visible displays to date of a new religious movement that inspires curiosity and criticism.

"In a sense, it tries to plant Scientology in the community — not simply by giving or selling services but by being a community partner," said David Bromley, professor of religious studies and sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Denver ideal org, which last housed an advertising agency, is part church and part welcome center. There's a public-information area with hundreds of films; dozens of classrooms for Scientology counseling; and a chapel that doubles as an event hall.

The previous area Scientology headquarters, in Englewood, was smaller and harder to find, church officials said.

"I do think it's a new chapter for Scientology in Denver," said Cory Isaacson, a Denver software executive and church member. "We really just want to be part of the community and strengthen that and strengthen the neighborhood."

Church spokeswoman Erin Banks said Denver-area Scientologists number 10,000, and the church puts global membership in the millions and growing. Scholars say the numbers are exaggerated, and a 2008 survey identified 25,000 U.S. Scientologists and a church in decline.

Founded in the 1950s by late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church has been accused of being a business masquerading as a church, charging exorbitant fees and dividing families by telling members to "disconnect" from those viewed as hostile.

Former high-ranking Scientologists have come forward in recent years to say they were beaten and detained — allegations the church has dismissed as falsehoods spread by apostates.

The media were not invited to the Denver grand opening, which included an appearance by Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige. Church officials later provided excerpted remarks and video.

Police Chief White, in uniform, spoke of depending on church members to support the department's community-outreach efforts and train youth in drug prevention.

"I have seen your fabulous programs, and I know that they are open to all citizens in our community," White said.

Denver Police Capt. Jennifer Steck, who heads the department's public-affairs bureau, said she wrote prepared remarks for the chief.

At the church's request, Steck sent the speech to Banks, the church spokeswoman, for review. Banks replied with suggested additions to lengthen the speech, including more references to community respect and collaboration, according to e-mails obtained in a public-records request.

The "fabulous programs" line was among those added by church officials. All the church's suggestions were accepted, Steck said.

"It's not unusual to have somebody say, 'This is what we want you to talk about,' " Steck said. "In this case ... they made suggestions to extend the speech to fit more with their time, and the chief reviewed it to make sure it was something he felt comfortable with."

In an interview, White said he was unaware of many of the criticisms of Scientology.

"What convinced me was they wanted to be partners in the community in many fashions," said White, who has visited more than a dozen churches since becoming chief this year.

The church's talking points provided the foundation for Brooks' remarks, according to e-mails obtained in a records request. The city councilman, whose district borders the new church, edited them slightly and sent them back for review, the e-mails show.

Brooks lauded the church's commitment to helping the homeless and fighting illiteracy and drug abuse.

Brooks, who declined a phone-interview request and would answer questions only by e-mail, said he has a basic understanding of the church as a California native and former religious-studies major.

"Coming from a Christian background, it might not seem like a natural fit for me to speak at the opening of a Scientology church," he wrote. "However, as a leader of the community with a vision for connecting diverse communities, I realize the importance of engaging the faith-based communities in different ways."

Brooks said he typically gets speaking suggestions from organizations, and he went off the talking points at the Scientology event to better emphasize community outreach.

Other council members declined invitations, most citing previous engagements.

Banks said the church 's talking points are based on subjects that speakers have expressed interest in covering. Not all use them, but some do because they want to be as prepared as possible, she said.

Other speakers included the Rev. Leon Kelly of Open Door Youth Gang Initiatives, who said he started working with local Scientologists who helped with an after-school tutoring program 20 years ago.

"Anybody who comes forth to try to make a change, make a difference in the life of a person, I'm going to embrace," Kelly said.

Because Scientology seeks legitimacy as a mainstream religion, winning approval from prominent local leaders is important to church officials, said journalist Janet Reitman, author of the 2011 book "Inside Scientology."

"Scientology has excellent PR skills, they know how to talk to officials and other opinion leaders, they make huge overtures to win people of local and national importance to their side, and they are very, very smooth," Reitman said.

Yet as with so much about Scientology, questions surround the ideal orgs. Critics say some sit empty, or suggest the true motivation is to build lucrative real-estate portfolios.

Isaacson, the local church member, said the church hopes to make the new building a community resource.

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Church of Scientology

A religious group founded by late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and based on his book "Dianetics," published in 1950. Scientologists believe that the individual is first and foremost a spirit, or thetan, and that thetans can be cleared of negative energy through a process called auditing. In part because members are charged fees to receive auditing, Scientology's tenets have been challenged and its practices investigated by governmental agencies around the world. After a long legal battle, the Internal Revenue Service granted the group tax-exempt status in 1993.

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