The Church of Scientology has strayed from principle and devolved into a cash-hungry enterprise that misuses parishioner donations to protect itself from questions and to intimidate its own members, a California couple charged Wednesday.
The couple said in a federal lawsuit that the church had misused about $400,000 of their money, including donations meant for construction projects and for relief from natural disasters.
They also said that church donations had been used to finance a high-priced lifestyle for its leader, David Miscavige.
The lawsuit, filed in Tampa, Fla., by Luis and Rocio Garcia of Irvine, Calif., accuses the church of fraud and breach of contract.
The church said in a statement that it had not been served and could not comment on the lawsuit.
It added: "We can unequivocally state all funds solicited are used for the charitable and religious purposes for which they were donated."
The Garcias were members of the church for 28 years before leaving in 2010, their lawyer Theodore Babbitt told NBC News.
The church uses "large, high-pressure fundraising drives" as a main source of revenue and has morphed into an organization "whose primary purpose is taking people's money," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges that the church has used contributions to "stifle inquiries into the Church's activities and finances, to intimidate members and ex-members" and "to finance the lavish lifestyle of Miscavige."
Five Scientology organizations are named as defendants.
The lawsuit focuses on a Scientology building in Clearwater, Fla., that Babbitt said remains unopen. The California couple said that the church had accepted more than $200 million in donations in all for the building, known as "Super Power," and spent less than half on construction.
The lawsuit makes specific charges about how the church misused the Garcias' money. The couple claimed that they gave $340,000 for the building, in more than a dozen donations between 1998 and 2005, and were made promises that the church did not fulfill.
One of those donations came in August 2005, according to the suit, when the Garcias were asked to give $65,000 for a cross to go on top of the building and were told that contractors were ready to do the work. The cross did not go up for five years, the suit said.
The couple also charged that the church had misspent money meant for eradicating child pornography and helping victims of natural disasters.
The Garcias have spoken out against the church before.
Luis Garcia told the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, for a profile published in 2011, that the church had strayed from the teachings of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and had been "corrupted."
The church said that it had expelled Garcia, while he maintained that he resigned, according to the newspaper. The paper did not quote the church as giving a reason for the claimed expulsion.
Babbitt said it was the first time his law firm had been involved in legal action against the church.
Perhaps the highest-profile defection from the church has been that of Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer and director of the 2004 movie "Crash." He belonged to the church for 34 years before leaving in 2009.
Haggis, in an interview last week with the NBC program "Rock Center with Brian Williams," described the church as a cult and said he was disturbed by allegations of abuse at its highest levels, including violence and involuntary confinement.
The church said that Haggis is a hypocrite and hasn't been an active member in years. The church said that "no independent evidence exists" to corroborate claims of abuse.