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Article published Saturday, July 2, 2005
COMMENTARY
Scientology story sparks heated response

One thing that quickly becomes clear to journalists who cover religion is that every faith has its strong supporters as well as its fervent critics.

When I wrote an article for last Sunday's front page about the Church of Scientology - of local interest now that hometown girl Katie Holmes is engaged to high-profile Scientologist Tom Cruise - I expected a larger-than-usual response because of the celebrity angle and Scientology's unorthodox views.

I was caught by surprise, however, by the intensity of some people's animosity toward Scientology.

My assignment was to inform readers about the origins, beliefs, and practices of the Church of Scientology.

A few people called or wrote to say they appreciated the straightforward explanation of Scientology.

A number of readers, however, wanted more. They wanted to see Scientology discredited, calling it a "money-grubbing cult," as one person put it.

There's no doubt the church has been involved in controversies almost from day one, when it was founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954.

Scientologists waged a 26-year legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service after the government revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1967, claiming that Scientology was a commercial enterprise and that its practitioners were profiting from the church's activities.

David G. Bromley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on modern religions, told me last week that the semantics of the church's organizational chart probably sparked the IRS' ire: Each church is considered a "franchise" and its clients pay a "fixed donation" for services that include educational programs and "audits," or counseling sessions.

In 1993, however, the IRS changed its stance and ruled that the Church of Scientology does qualify as a religion and is entitled to tax-exempt status.

That hasn't stopped some readers from questioning Scientology's validity as a religion. Many cited a May, 1991, cover story in Time magazine titled "Scientology - The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power," which is still circulating in cyberspace, and award-winning series by both the Los Angeles Times and St. Petersburg Times. Several journalists involved in writing these exposs said they were harassed, threatened, and sued by Scientologists.

One Blade reader said he knows firsthand that while Scientology claims to be "all-denominational," allowing members to belong to other religious groups, in reality adherents are pressured to abandon other faiths.

One of the more diligent and informed critics is Arnie Lerma, a self-described "old hippie" living near Washington.

Mr. Lerma, now 54, had been a Scientologist until the church broke his heart and, he says, threatened to break erents are pressured to abandon other faiths.

One of the more diligent and informed critics is Arnie Lerma, a self-described "old hippie" living near Washington.

Mr. Lerma, now 54, had been a Scientologist until the church broke his heart and, he says, threatened to break even more.

He began working for the Church of Scientology at age 16 in 1967, carrying folders and filing documents at its D.C. offices, and moved up in rank to become a member of Scientology's elite Sea Organization.

While working for the church in New York City in 1976, Mr. Lerma said, he met Suzette Hubbard, daughter of the church's founder.

"We had fallen in love and wanted to get married and live together for the rest of our lives," he said.

Somebody in the organization apparently didn't like that plan, however, and Suzette was transferred to Clearwater, Fla.

Mr. Lerma and Miss Hubbard maintained a long-distance relationship until he decided to make a surprise visit to Clearwater.

"We were going to elope, so I flew down there," he said. "Suzette and I got blood tests and a marriage license."

Miss Hubbard was going through an audit at the time and revealed to her Scientology auditor that she and Mr. Lerma were planning to elope.

"She spilled the beans, and I got arrested - well, detained," Mr. Lerma said. "I remember being in a room with a chair and a light bulb and two guys outside the door. I was interrogated for several hours. I was not struck, hit, or physically abused. However, what I do remember is the deal I was offered: 'We will give you a guarantee of safe passage out of the state of Florida with all body parts attached if you tell Suzette Hubbard the marriage is off.' "

He said he took the threat seriously.

"I told Suzette the marriage is off, and I watched her start crying," Mr. Lerma said.

He fled Florida and the Church of Scientology, but he never lost his love for Suzette. She later married a church member and moved to California, Mr. Lerma said, and is now divorced. He said he's tried to contact her over the years but has not been able to penetrate the circle of Scientologists that surrounds her.

Mr. Lerma said he considers Scientology to be a cult, not a religion, because "it controls its membership by lying to them." He has devoted tremendous effort to share his views on his Web site, www.lermanet.com, which he subtitles: "Exposing the Con."

Sylvia Stanard, a Scientology spokesman, is well aware that some people consider her church to be a cult. She argues that all new religions have had to overcome ignorance and persecution.

In centuries past, she said, people were thrown to the lions or hanged for their beliefs. "At least we live in a more civilized time when only words are used to attack new concepts that are not yet understood," Ms. Standard said.

Those words of attack are all over the Internet - and, since last week, in my e-mail inbox.

David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at:
dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.






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