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September 1, 2014

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Scientology ups profile

Controversial church expanding to synagogue’s former home as part of global recruitment push

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Tiffany Brown

Carolyn Calley, the Church of Scientology’s director of community affairs in Las Vegas, says the valley is home to about 2,000 Scientologists.

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Workers renovate the Church of Scientology's future home in August near Emerson and Eastern avenues. The church in October 2005 purchased the 3.71-acre parcel for $2.9 million from a synagogue that has since moved to Henderson, according to county records.

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About Scientology

• Founded in the early 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. His 1950 book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” provided many of the principles of what would later become Scientology. Those include opposition to modern psychiatry.

• Regained tax exempt status in 1993, after a decades-long battle with the IRS, which had claimed it was a commercial enterprise designed for Hubbard’s gain. Church claimed tax exemption victory equaled “full religious recognition.”

• Says it now has millions of adherents and more than 6,000 churches, missions and groups worldwide.

• Teaches that people are spiritual beings who have lived through past lives and forgotten their real nature.

• Puts members through a type of counseling called “auditing,” during which painful or traumatic events are recalled so members can free themselves of the memories’ effects.

Criticisms of Scientology

• Numerous news accounts have included allegations that the group is more of a moneymaking cult than a religion. The church has denied the allegations and pointed to converts who have said their new faith has improved and sometimes saved their lives.

• In 1991 Time magazine published a lengthy article titled “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power,” which concluded: “In reality the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.” Scientology’s leaders denied the allegations and sued Time. A federal judge dismissed each libel claim against the magazine.

• The St. Petersburg Times in Florida two months ago published a series on the church, recounting allegations that Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, repeatedly physically attacked his subordinates and subjected them to psychological abuse. The church responded to the articles by claiming that high-ranking Scientology defectors who spoke to the newspaper were vengeful and spewing “absolute and total lies” in an effort to tarnish Miscavige’s image.

Scientology is getting big in the Las Vegas Valley, at least in terms of square footage.

The controversial religion is renovating a former synagogue complex near the corner of Eastern and Emerson avenues so it can become Scientology’s focal point in Nevada, with 36,845 square feet of space and a “Celebrity Centre” to specially cater to high-profile artists, celebrities and community leaders.

The Las Vegas celebrity center will be Scientology’s fourth such center in the U.S. The others are in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, Tenn.

According to church spokeswoman Karin Pouw, the centers provide a private environment for celebrities, high-profile artists and leaders to mingle and learn about the church. Several movie stars are well-known advocates of Scientology, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Critics have alleged that Scientology targets celebrities and other well-known figures for recruitment because they tend to be wealthy and their star power strengthens the church’s ability to recruit others. Scientologists deny those allegations and say the centers are worthy because artists, and by extension culture, needs to be supported.

About one-third of the new Las Vegas Scientology church will be used to inform people, including walk-ins, about the church and its programs, Pouw said.

About 2,000 Scientologists live in the valley, said Carolyn Calley, community affairs director of the Church of Scientology in Las Vegas. That’s the same number cited for Nashville’s Scientology population when plans for the church’s similar-size building were announced there.

The new Las Vegas church and the one that opened in Nashville in April are part of a recent worldwide effort to expand the church’s reach. In the past five years, the church has acquired 3.6 million square feet of space for centers around the world, Pouw said.

According to records from the Clark County assessor’s office, the Church of Scientology, Creative Mission of Las Vegas, in October 2005 purchased the 3.71-acre parcel from Congregation Ner Tamid, a large Reform synagogue that has since moved to Henderson, for $2.9 million. According to Calley, the church is spending about another $3 million on renovations.

The renovated church, set to open in November, will have added space for executive offices.

The Scientologists will keep their building on East Sahara Avenue near State Street and may use it for administrative purposes, Calley said.

According to Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, in whose district the new church will reside, the Scientologists won approval for changes to their new location about two months ago, about the time Martin-Harris Construction began its work on the former synagogue.

During neighborhood meetings, Giunchigliani said, only a few nearby residents expressed reservations. Residents mostly had other types of questions, the typical ones about parking and the renovated building’s height, Giunchigliani said.

In recent weeks, three Scientology representatives also met with Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and Las Vegas City Councilmen Gary Reese and Steve Ross to talk about their expansion plans and, Calley said, to introduce them to the church’s anti-drug and human rights programs.

Goodman said the Scientologists told him they were interested in building something major in Las Vegas, on the “scale of grandeur” of the church’s Los Angeles-area building, one of its largest.

Reese was impressed with the Scientologists’ zeal. “I love meeting with people who are very upbeat and believe in what they are doing,” he said.

None of several elected officials contacted for this story expressed concern about the increased local presence of the church, a group that has been criticized for decades for its recruitment practices and what some allege are cultlike techniques used to retain members and extract money from them.

The center that opened in Nashville did run into small community protests.

“I believe they are trying to come across as though they are like your local Presbyterian or Catholic Church or Jewish synagogue. They are not,” said Todd Lake, vice president of spiritual development at Belmont University in Nashville. “The idea that you would have this gilded, platinum-edged treatment for celebrities, who are often people of means, goes against everything most monotheistic religions stand for.”

“This is unlike any other religion,” said Lake, who holds a doctorate in theology.

Religious leaders in the Las Vegas Valley are not concerned about Scientology’s rising local profile, according to F. Gard Jameson, chairman of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. Scientology does not appear on the council’s Web site, but Jameson said it is a member of the council.

“We don’t really judge that institution in any way,” said Jameson, associate pastor of Grace Community Church, a Methodist church in Boulder City. “My goodness, if you look at the Catholic Church or some Protestant churches, they’ve had their share of controversies, too.”

“My view is, whatever brings you closer to the experience of the divine, that’s a good thing,” he added.

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