City rejects tsunami-aid appeal 15, 2005
By Eugene Tong

Santa Clarita -- The city has declined a request from a group linked to the Church of Scientology that is seeking donations to assist orphans in nations struck by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Santa Clarita City Council was considering a $10,000 donation to Los Angeles-based International Foundation for Human Rights and Tolerance and ordered the city staff to conduct standard background checks, after foundation President Michelle Seward pleaded for cash before the panel Tuesday.

But City Manager Ken Pulskamp, on advice from the city attorney, decided against the donation when staffers found possible ties between the foundation and Scientology during the vetting process.

City spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said the First Amendment forbids government from making direct donations to religious groups, and that there will be no further discussion of the request by the City Council.

"It was not abundantly clear whether or not they were members of the Church of Scientology, but there were enough indications that gave us pause," she said Friday. "Our status as a government entity precludes us from donating money to any religious organization, so we're erring on the side of caution."

Seward said she regretted the city's decision, but would continue to raise money for the cause.

"Of course, we at the foundation are very disappointed," she said Friday. "We think these children should be the most important thing. I believe the city is going off wrong information."

A local resident and friend of Mayor Cameron Smyth, Seward has said the foundation is an independent group dedicated to promoting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that Scientology is among her organization's financial backers and action partners.

The foundation, in a statement Wednesday, said it was preparing a team "with the support of the Human Rights Department of the Church of Scientology International" to aid displaced children believed at risk after the Dec. 26 tsunami killed more than 150,000 people among 11 countries.

UNICEF officials have warned that human traffickers could be targeting refugee camps for orphans to sell into labor or the sex trade, and hard-hit nations including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand are monitoring the problem.

"The city of Santa Clarita wishes Michelle Seward and her International Foundation for Human Rights and Tolerance well," Ortiz said. "Helping these children is a very noble goal, and we wish her success."

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