Scientology, Free Speech and "Religious Persecution"

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

- Blaise Pascal, Pensee #895

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Warning! The Bridge is Out

Scientology: An Overview

Scientology, Free Speech and "Religious Persecution"

The Amoral Cult

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You're practicing hate speech!

A new Internet campaign by the Church of Scientology features banner graphics with slogans like the following:

Support Religious Tolerance

Scientologists often claim that the heated "criticism" directed at them, on alt.religion.scientology or elsewhere, is actually religious persecution or hate crime. Scientology publications such as Freedom magazine often blame the government or the mental health profession for the Church's troubles, and make a point of mentioning Scientology's religious status, supporting their point with quotations from experts in religious studies.

It's true that governments and doctors aren't perfect, but the Scientologists' argument is a red herring for two reasons.

  • Critical speech is not necessarily persecution. The same bills of rights that grant religious freedom also grant the freedom to voice opinions, even controversial or unpopular ones.
  • According to the Consitutions of Canada or the United States, people have a right to believe whatever religion they want, whether it is right or wrong. But the way people behave as part of their religious practice is not necessarily protected. The Scientologists obscure this important distinction.

Religious freedom is not the issue

In August 1995, the Church of Scientology sued Internet critic and former Scientologist Arnie Lerma for copyright infringement, after he posted what was then an open court document, an affadavit containing complete copies of some of the confidential OT levels, to the Internet. The Church also named the Washington Post and two of its reporters as defendants, because Lerma had sent them a copy of the affadavit, which they quoted in an article about the Church. The Scientologists argued that the Post's article infringed upon their religious freedom on two counts.

First, the Post infringed upon the free exercise of the religion of Scientology by making its secrets public. Because the secrecy of the OT levels is a central tenet of Church doctrine, the Scientologists argued that publishing the secrets constituted "irreversible alteration of religious beliefs, including compelled annihilation of a core belief." The Church likened this to forcing a Christian to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The analogy is faulty. The Resurrection is an essential belief of Christianity (I would say the essence of Christianity). Christianity without the Resurrection would be something else, and someone who does not believe in the Resurrection is, by definition, not a Christian. But the secrecy of Scientology scriptures is only a contengency. It does not alter the content of those scriptures in any way. The secrecy (or publicity) of the OT documents is nothing more than a relationship between the documents and any potential readers. As such it is no more an essential belief of Scientology than where the documents are stored. I might as well argue that knocking down the Parliament buildings "irreversibly alters" belief in the art of architecture.

Also, coercing a Christian to deny the Resurrection is a positive restraint upon the free exercise of his religion. However, publishing Scientology's secrets in the press only informs non-Scientologists what Scientologists believe. It does not compel Scientologists to believe something different, except about the contingent property of secrecy. In the same sense, knocking down the Parliament buildings would "compel" me to believe only that they have been knocked down. It would not compel me not to believe all sorts of other things about Parliament: the buildings once existed, they were designed according to certain architectural principles, the Centre Block was the seat of government, and so on.

Second, the Scientologists argued that the OT levels were available only to those who were spiritually worthy. By disclosing the contents, the Post risked causing spiritual harm to its readers. In effect, the Scientologists claimed they were trying to protect the public by keeping the materials secret.

Again, the Church's claimed "religious freedom" clashes with other established individual freedoms. The liberalism that underlies modern democracy does not view the government as a "babysitter" that has to protect its citizens from danger. Being free entails being free to take risks. Free individuals do not need the government or the Church of Scientology to protect them from allegedly dangerous knowledge.

Furthermore, by asking the courts to rule in their favour because of the "devastating, cataclysmic spiritual harm" that could result by making the OT levels public, the Church implicitly demanded that the court accept Church teachings to be true. Although this might wash in a religious court, it is outside the scope of secular law to judge the truth of religious claims.

Religions make claims about the nature of the world, the origin of man, the means of salvation, and so on. The Constitutional freedom of religion gives citizens the right to believe these claims, and freedom of speech gives them the right to make these claims publicly.

Nonetheless, the same Constitution guarantees unbelievers the right to doubt religious claims, and to express those doubts publicly. Freedom of expression exists to encourage reasoned debate about controversial subjects without fear of legal retribution. Moreover, if an individual or organization has committed illegal or unethical acts, the free press serves the public interest by reporting the details.

Scientology's doctrines and practices are sufficiently doubtful that the Church stands to lose potential converts if its "trade secrets" become generally known. And its involvement in illegal conspiracies, such as Operation Snow White, is a matter of historical record. The Church has a policy of harassing those who criticise them on these grounds. And when newspapers such as the Washington Post find this harassment newsworthy and report on it, the Scientologists sue them too.

Scientology's real motive is not to protect religious freedom. Neither Lerma nor the Post has tried to make people believe something against their will. The Church is using freedom of religion as a cloak to protect itself from criticism. Although Rev. Al Buttnor, the Media Relations Director for the Church of Scientology of Canada claimed in a response to a newspaper article I wrote that "[t]he freedom of speech issue is bunk," he is wrong. Freedom of speech is the heart of the matter. As long as the Church of Scientology harasses persons who publicly express opinions it doesn't like, it opposes the very principle for which freedom of speech exists.

Madam Justice Leonie M. Brinkema, who presided over Religious Technology Center vs. Lerma, ultimately found Lerma liable for copyright infringement. In my opinion, he did show poor judgment in trying to claim wholesale copying of the OT levels was "fair use." This notwithstanding, he was given the minimum penalty prescribed by law, a total of $2 500. (US). Technically the Church won, but since their secret Scriptures lost their "trade secret" status, and Judge Brinkema did not award the $490 565.25 legal costs claimed by the Church - a net loss of nearly half a million dollars, ironically near the amount some Scientologists would have to pay for that much enlightenment - the victory was a Pyrrhic one. On the other hand, the outcome was a moral victory for free speech in the public interest. While Judge Brinkema was on holiday, Church attorneys had her written decision sealed by ex parte motion, because it contained confidential Scientology teaching. She immediately filed a terse order reversing the seal when she returned.

Religious practice is not protected

In 1983, a secret two-year investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police into allegations of consumer fraud resulted in a massive raid on the Scientology building in Toronto. When lawyers for the Church petitioned to have the original search warrant quashed on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, they argued before the provincial court that fraud charges could not apply to Church members sincerely practicing their faith.

This is a specious argument. Freedom of religious belief is absolute, but freedom of religious practice is not, the judge said. An organization claiming to be a religion is not automatically immune from court action when it transgresses criminal or civil law. This is why the Québec Court of Appeal recently rejected an appeal by the Church in which it claimed to be immune from the Consumer Protection Act. The court ruled that the public always has a right to protection against unfair business practices, even if the business is run by a recognized religion.

The Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan launched a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which resulted in the deaths of 12 passengers and almost six thousand injuries. Are the Aum cultists innocent of mass murder, simply because they were sincerely practicing their faith? Of course not.

What if Scientology isn't a real religion?

Authorities are divided as to whether, under the law, Scientology is a bona fide religion. In Canada and the United States, for example, Scientology is a tax-exempt organization, and in some jurisdictions its ministers are licensed to perform marriages. But the German labour court (Bundesarbeitsgericht) has ruled that Scientology is not a religion but a for-profit business. Naturally, the Church celebrates the former and decries the latter as persecution.

But the Church itself seems a little undecided. Tax exemption for religious organizations is a given in the United States or Canada. Freedom of religion here is such that an organization needs only to say it is a religion, and then meet certain legal criteria for tax exemption. However, in many Latin American countries, churches are not allowed to own land. In these countries Scientology does not claim to be a religion, but a philosophical society.

The varying decisions rendered by civil authorities, as well as the Church's own chameleonic self-description, casts a reasonable uncertainty on any claim by the Scientology organization to be a genuine religion. If this were a legal question, the principle of estoppel would bar the Church from making contradictory claims about itself, but the many jurisdictions in which the claims are made also make meaningful legal argument difficult.

But could the Scientology beliefs be considered genuine religious doctrine? Because the kinds of religious belief in the world are so many and varied, it is very difficult to pin down those characteristics that define religious belief systems and separate them from other sorts of belief systems. For the purposes of argument, I stipulate that religious systems have the following:

  • teaching about the nature of man and the meaning of life
  • a cosmology
  • a way of salvation or spiritual enlightenment
  • a code of ethics or morals
Based on these criteria, I can also stipulate that the tenets of Scientology constitute a religious system of belief, and any person who sincerely believes in the principles of Scientology and practices them is practicing a religion.

I must qualify that statement by saying I believe Scientology is a false religious belief. I have a personal bias against Scientology, of course, because the tenets of Scientology are antithetical to the evangelical Christianity I believe in. But I also draw this conclusion because Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, is a known liar who lied about everything from his Boy Scout record to his academic credentials and military career. It seems irrational to believe what he said about spiritual life when he cannot be trusted to be truthful about his own earthly life. Hubbard was also known to remark that the best way to make a million dollars was to start a religion. In saying so he cast doubt on his true motives for founding Scientology. Is it really a way to spiritual enlightenment, or a way for Hubbard to make money?

Who's the real bigot here?

Late in 1996, the Church of Scientology took out advertisements in major newspapers and magazines, accusing the government of Germany of mistreating them in the same way as Hitler and the Nazis treated the Jews. The Church knows how to sway people's emotions by portraying itself as a victim of the establishment. It doesn't matter whether the establishment is the government, the psychiatric profession, or critics on the Internet - they are all bigots involved in a hate campaign against the Church. Persecution is a valuable card to play, and the Holocaust is probably the most emotionally loaded event in history.

On the other hand, virtually every German critic of Scientology who posts to alt.religion.scientology has been attacked by numerous Scientologists who accuse him or her of various Nazi atrocities. The "logic" seems to imply that if so-and-so is a German and opposes Scientology, so-and-so must be a Nazi. Is this not an unfair and bigoted assumption? Yet one German critic, Tilman Hausherr, has received dozens of email messages and Usenet posts from Scientologists accusing him of being a fascist or a Nazi. The church is running a hate campaign of its own . . .

Let the reader understand . . .

Most critics of the Church, myself included, hold no personal grudge against individual Scientologists. They are people, made in the image of God, with intrinsic worth and dignity. The average Scientologist is not evil or stupid. He is deceived. Most public Scientologists probably do not know of their Church's criminal history, or they have been told that the Church's actions are justifiable in light of the "persecution" it experiences.

Hubbard wrote that anyone who opposed Scientology was either insane or trying to cover up secret crimes. This paranoia survives in the Church, and the Church passes it on to its members. I have received email from Scientologists saying they were advised by someone in authority not to speak to me because I might harm their case. Someone who cannot venture into the wog world without seeing aberration or insanity everywhere deserves sympathy, not censure.

Chances are, if you can read this you live in a liberal democracy that guarantees religious freedom of some kind. One of the responsibilities of the individual in a pluralistic society is that he respect the rights of others to believe as they wish. This is good and just. But justice also demands intolerance of crime or immorality, even if it is committed in the name of God or "religious freedom." I affirm what our former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker said on July 1, 1960:

I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.

Why do I feel this way about Scientology? Part Two of this essay, The Amoral Cult, details only a few of the things the Church of Scientology has done to deserve the moral outrage directed at it.


Warning! The Bridge is Out  * Scientology: An Overview  * Scientology, Free Speech and "Religious Persecution"  * The Amoral Cult
For More Information  * Glossary  * History

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Created January 26, 1998 (Dead Ron Day) by Scott McClare. Revision A04 April 3, 1998

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