A Belgian prosecutor on Tuesday recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a 10-year investigation that concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization.
Although I take a dim view of the principle, held by many European countries, that speech and belief can be censored in the name of promoting societal harmony, this is one instance where the United States’ more expansive view of religious freedom has led to the wrong conclusion. The U.S. decision to officially recognize Scientology as a religion and grant it tax-exempt status was the wrong one, and should be reversed. (Granted, I believe that all churches should be taxed, but if we’re going to start repairing that error, there’s no better place to start than with Scientology.)
Scientology is well-known for being a litigious cult with a history of trying to silence its critics. It’s also been tied to criminal activities in the past, including a well-known case from the 1970s in which eleven highly-ranked Scientologists, including L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, pled guilty or were convicted of charges that included attempts to wiretap and burglarize U.S. government offices. Scientology is also widely known for having perhaps the most ludicrous backstory of any current faith, including the belief that an alien space overlord named Xenu attempted to solve a galactic overpopulation problem by bringing billions of alien beings to Earth to kill them, and that the ghosts of these dead aliens (called “thetans”) cling invisibly to human beings and cause every physical or mental problem which people suffer from. Lay Scientologists are not told this story until they have donated a considerable sum of money to the church.
Ridiculous beliefs are one thing, but Scientology’s aggressive, hostile attitude toward its detractors is what has earned it the most notoriety. L. Ron Hubbard famously declared that the church’s critics were “fair game” who could be “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” The most prominent victim of this policy was Paulette Cooper, who wrote an anti-Scientology book (The Scandal of Scientology) to which the church responded by, among other things, trying to frame her for bomb threats.
The church claims it discontinued the “fair game” policy in 1968, though as recently as 1999, it agreed to pay libel damages for publishing a pamphlet attacking a former member as a “hate campaigner”. The new recommendations by Belgian prosecutor Jean-Claude Van Espen cast further doubt on that claim, since they include allegations of “intimidation and extortion” against ex-members.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that these allegations, even if they lead to charges being filed, will be aired in court for some time. But as far as I’m concerned, the sooner that day comes, the better. All of society will benefit if this pernicious sect is exposed for what it is:
The German government considers Scientology a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people.
…and if these charges lead the U.S. government to reconsider Scientology’s tax-exempt status, so much the better.