Scientology-based teachings at youth center raise questions

Valley Morning Star, Texas/May 23, 2011

Harlingen - Use of Scientology-based slogans and pamphlets at the city's new youth outreach center have raised questions, but "The 21 Ways to Happiness" is just a common-sense motto that helps teach morals and values to at-risk youth, Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director Tommy Ramirez Jr. said.

The walls of The Bridge, which opened Friday at the former Harlingen Police Station, are decorated with slogans that are included in the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

"There are no religions being taught, advocated, or preached by the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department nor anyone associated with the department," Ramirez said Monday.

"There are universal morals, values, good character traits being provided to the youth we are trying to rehabilitate," he said. "We have been using these tools for eight years as a means of changing the lives of the youth we serve and molding them to become good Christian citizens in our community."

"The Bridge: Harlingen Outreach Center" welcomes clergy of all faiths who wish to speak to young people who participate in programs aimed at preventing gang membership and drug use, Ramirez said.

Harlingen Family Dentistry, owned by Dr. Juan Villarreal, is one local business that has made generous donations to the program, Ramirez said.

"There are number of faith-based organizations that have partnered with us," he said.

Villarreal, who is a local Scientology leader, said the slogans painted on the walls of the outreach center are basic morality lessons, and his purpose of supporting The Bridge is not to promote Scientology, but to help local youth.

"When I was 16, I was actually arrested," he said. "I was hanging around with the wrong kids and I got in trouble."

Local youths have more distractions and temptations now than when he was a teenager, Villarreal said. Gangs offer young people a sense of belonging but steer them toward drugs and crime, he said.

A 2005 shooting of a Harlingen police officer "happened just down the street from where I grew up," Villarreal said. "The 21 Ways to Happiness" is just a tool to help guide young people toward a positive life, he said.

Mayor Chris Boswell said the issue of the slogans, which are also displayed inside the Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Justice Center in San Benito, was discussed by the Cameron County Board of District Judges last week.

"They made a determination that nobody's trying to promote a religion," the mayor said.

Commissioner Jerry Prepejchal said he attended the meeting in Brownsville.

"I don't even know what Scientology is," he said. "I'm a Catholic. ... We have to give this program a chance. This is for the kids. We need to give it a chance."

But Commissioner Kori Marra, who did not attend Friday's dedication ceremony of the new youth center, said she has misgivings about using religious material from any church in a county or city youth program.

"I'm a big believer in the separation of church and state," she said. "I don't have any objection to the program. It's an excellent program; I'm glad it's in my district."

But the issue of the slogans and religious materials was discussed last week with city commissioners by City Attorney Roxann Cotroneo, Marra said.

Cotroneo did not return a phone call requesting comment.

"I'm not a lawyer," Marra said, adding she is satisfied that attorneys and judges have reviewed the constitutional issues involved in using a Scientology program in a youth program funded by taxpayers, she said.

Julie Herrington, a member of The Bridge's fundraising committee, said that rumors that the name "The Bridge" has something to do with Scientology is nonsense. She suggested the name after she was asked by fundraiser Matt Gorges to develop a name for the center.

Another fundraising committee member Gail Thomason, a retired teacher, said she also supports the program. The program organized by Ramirez has an excellent reputation and has been very successful inside the juvenile detention center and should also work at The Bridge.

Young people need guidance in moral issues, she said, and since schools no longer teach morality, it is good that they can receive basic guidance in a form that appeals to them.

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