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Tide turning // Scientologists may be losing battle with Clearwater

Title: Tide turning // Scientologists may be losing battle with Clearwater
Date: Sunday, 30 October 1983
Publisher: Miami Herald
Author: Anders Gyllenhaal
Main source: link (132 KiB)

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CLEARWATER — A poker-faced doorman bows slightly at the entrance of the Fort Harrison and motions visitors to the lobby, where a crowd waits at the front desk and dozens of guests rush up and down the marble staircases beneath the crystal chandeliers.

A larger-than-life portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, the reclusive founder of Scientology, stares down upon his followers from high on the wall. Many of them wear the sea merchant uniform that is part of their code. Most criss-cross the lobby of the aging hotel in the quickened footsteps of someone with a mission.

It is Florida's most unusual place of worship. Or is it?

Between a controversial new, city ordinance and an age-old tax case, the Church of Scientology's struggle for legitimacy — perhaps even survival — in this immaculate Gulf Coast city is failing.

Inside the 11-story monolith that dominates the city's downtown, the church formed around the counseling methods and self-betterment theories of Hubbard thrives at a pace that could make the nearby Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians envious. But outside on the streets of Clearwater, residents have remained unconvinced that the group with its checkered past is a religion at all.

So when ordinance 3091-83 came up for a final vote earlier this month, only one city-commissioner opposed the law that gives Clearwater strong investigatory powers over all charitable organizations — but that church members believe will be used against them [?]

"It has happened for ages," said Rev. Hugh Wilhere, the former probation officer who does most of the talking for the church. "The Baptists got run out of Massachusetts. It's happened to the Catholic, the Mormons. In one place or another all through history, somebody's been going after someone else."

In modern-day Clearwater, even the church's milder critics admit they would like history to repeat Itself once more. The lone dissenter on the ordinance vote conceded residents have made themselves clear when it comes to Scientologists.

"The people want you to do anything and everything," said Commissioner Jim Berfield, "to get them out of town. It's as simple as that."

But in fact, the feud between the city and church isn't simple at all: For years, both have offered almost a textbook case on how not to get along. Local politicians have accused the church of everything from devil-worship to profiteering. The church, in turn, claims the city has been discriminatory, bigoted and has passed unconstitutional laws.

The ordinance is a 12-page document that gives the city the power to probe the church ledgers to halt what city officials claim has been a history of improper fund-raising by the church. The Scientologists say the charges are groundless. But a cloak of secrecy has enveloped the organization since it arrived in Clearwater in 1975 and bought the Fort Harrison under a disguised corporate name for $2.3 million cash.

A wing of the church called the Guardians managed to slip members into jobs at the police department and the Clearwater Sun and plotted to pressure local officials — even try to frame a mayor with hit-and-run charges — with the help of a network of amateur spies, according to members' confessions and court documents.

Today, church says such zealous moves were foolish and have long since been halted. "We made some mistakes," said Rev. Wilhere. "Hopefully, we've learned something from all this."

To help make amends, the church set up a new public affairs office and began to build a case for why Clearwater needs the Scientologists. They counted up what they compute to be a $10-million annual contribution they make to the local economy. They painted and cleaned up their buildings and started paying calls on civic leaders.

They've also instructed their followers to be more pleasant. "Smile," reads one sign in a downtown Scientology building. "This is the friendliest place in the whole world."

The campaign has had only limited success. The owners of many of the newer stores in downtown Clearwater have found church members to be a boon to business. "They've never even been given a first chance," said Elaine Narcolis, 28, the manager of a downtown boutique.

But merchants who've been there since the early days are not so forgiving. Says Dixie Robinson, who runs a printing shop across the street from the Fort Harrison: "I've had people tell me they're afraid to come downtown any more. I honestly don't think that if I could make a million dollars off them I would want the money."

That is a claim most of Clearwater cannot make. Indeed, money seems to be at the heart of most of the disagreements.

The big problem has been taxes. As a church, the Scientologists claim to be tax-exempt. But the county, arguing that the Scientologists have not supplied enough documentation to support the claim, has routinely denied the exemption. For each annual denial, the church has sued.

Thus far, the circuit courts and an appellate court have agreed with the city that unless the church turns over the documents they are assumed to be a profit-making group. The ruling has thus far spared the courts from having to address the troublesome question of whether Scientology is in fact a religion. It has also presented the church with a whopping tax bill of $750,000 for back years.

As Ron Schultz, Pinellas County's property appraiser, puts it, "If It looks like a horse but they claim It's a camel, well, show me some humps."

Another dispute has arisen over redevelopment in the city's downtown, which critics say is being stalled by the Scientologists.

In the eight years since the church moved into town it has spent $9 million. Its staff and guests quickly outgrew the Fort Harrison and began buying other buildings. A bank building down the street is used for administrative offices, motels house families and other guests, while stores and office buildings have become classrooms, print shops and reading centers.

The total value is small compared to the taxable property of $2,5 billion in all of Clearwater and $16.2 billion in Pinellas County. But city officials say the church's presence amounts to an occupation of this downtown. The uniformed members strolling the streets, the church's internal bus system and its ownership of the building that was once the town's central meeting place have stunted the revival that city officials say would come without the church.

"Nobody knows what they're doing over there," said Shemzi Balla, 32, who owns the Park Terrace Restaurant a block away from the Fort Harrison. "Everybody's scared to come downtown. The city is dying because of them. I don't understand how this country allow this to happen."

One reason such mystery surrounds the church is that few of its members spend much time out in community and very few residents ever visit the Fort Harrison.

If they did, they would discover a scene much like a well-used college dormitory. The banquet rooms have been converted to classrooms where the church members practice their special brand of counseling based on the conviction that people can increase their mental powers and cure themselves of illnesses by clearing up troubles in their pasts.

The uniforms, complete with the rope lanyards down the side, are a holdover from the days when the Scientologists' retreat was aboard ship. The strict regimen that includes a 12-hour workday, diets, exercise and a nominal pay of $30 a week are all voluntary, they stress.

The Fort Harrison's nearly 300 rooms have been converted into living quarters, its restaurants into dining halls and its lounges into juice bars, since alcohol consumption is discouraged in the church. In every one of those rooms is posted another picture of Hubbard, smiling from under his captain's cap or frowning at his typewriter.

Prices for the course can be high.

in fact, because members can contribute whatever they want above a set amounts, some have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the lessons.That has helped to persuade some critics that the church is growing rich at the expense of its patrons and that the organization uses mind-control techniques.

The notions bring laughs to the churchgoers.

"All they have to do is meet a Scientologist," said Steve Stevens, 63, a furniture store operator from New Zealand who is taking courses in Clearwater. "Is this guy a zombie whose mind is controlled? Or just an average person who is functioning well in life?"

"It's kind of funny," said Chuck Devoe, 40, the vice president of a computer company in Los Angeles, who is also taking courses here. "With this, I feel more in control of my life than I've ever been."

Those claims, however, are in striking contrast to the picture of the church that emerged from the week and a half of hearings last year that led up to the passage of the charitable solicitation ordinance. Disenchanted former church members, national critics, even Hubbard's estranged son who recently lost a court battle to have his father declared deceased described the organization as a militaristic group that siphons wealth away from its members and is run by cruel, vindictive leaders.

So by a vote of 4-1, the city commission passed the proposal on Oct. 6 that requires all charitable agencies to file a list of their fund-raising activities with the city and allows the city attorney to investigate agencies if 10 or more of their members request it.

The church is already planning its court challenge, but whatever the outcome of the case, the Scientologists vow that no law will chase them out of Clearwater. "There isn't anything illegal going on here and we don't condone breaking the law," said Ron Norton, executive director of the church in the city. "This is America and I'm an American and I have all the rights of an American."

What the furor over the ordinance has done is draw the battle lines once again between the church and the city leaders. They seldom even speak these days, except when the time comes to give depositions for the next court case.

"They're just not interested in being part of the community," concluded Clearwater Mayor Kathy Kelly. "It has to be a two-way street."

Those are almost the same words that Rev. Wilhere chooses when he talks about it. "It works both ways," he said. "If people don't welcome you in, are you going to go?"

[Picture / Caption: Pinellas County Property Appraiser Ron Schultz looks at files on tax litigation involving Scientologists' property.]

[Picture / Caption: Rev. Hugh Wilhere on top of the Fort Harrison Hotel overlooking downtown Clearwater.]

[Picture / Caption: Jenny Wakley and her partner go through a Scientology drilling exercise.]