Scientology: Secret no more

One advantage of starting a religion in antiquity is that Rolling Stone was not around to ask awkward questions about Moses or Jesus or Muhammad.

By contrast, Janet Reitman — a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of its 2007 cover story about Scientology — has brought the modern arsenal of investigative journalism to bear on the Church of Scientology, which she calls a “shape-shifting” organization that can be described as “alternative to psychotherapy, social movement, transnational corporation, cult, religion.” Now Reitman presents her findings in an exhaustive but fascinating book, “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $28).

Reitman maintains a scrupulous journalistic discipline, and she cannot be fairly accused of attacking “America’s least understood new faith.” She never actually says that it’s a “dangerous cult,” and she doesn’t wonder out loud whether it ought to be called a religion at all, but she certainly reports when others do so. Her goal, she insists, is “to write the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology.” Her research may be unimpeachable, but her point of view is unmistakable.

“The traditional religious bedrock — worship, God, love and compassion, even the very concept of faith — is wholly absent from its precepts,” she writes. “And, unique among modern religions, Scientology charges members for every service, book and course offered, promising greater and greater spiritual enlightenment with every dollar spent. People don’t ‘believe’ in Scientology; they buy into it.”

The story begins with L. Ron Hubbard, whom Reitman describes as “salesman, guru, sea commodore, spymaster, poet, recluse, tyrant, and, last but not least, a very rich man” and whom she calls “one of the most effective hucksters of his generation.” A prolific writer of science fiction, he penned a self-help book titled “Dianetics” in 1950 and then transformed it into the sacred text of a new religion — “Book One” is what the Scientologists call it today. Although Hubbard died in 1986, the author points out that Hubbard remains very much alive in the imaginations of his followers. “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form,” Hubbard once confessed, and Reitman shows how fully he has achieved his aspiration.

Reitman goes on to show how the science-fiction underpinnings of Dianetics — the use of an “E-meter” to “audit” the human mind and to thereby liberate the imprisoned “theta beings,” if I have correctly grasped the fundamentals of Scientology — were put to use in the founding of a new religion.  “This reframing from the ‘mental science’ of Dianetics to the religion of Scientology was a typically canny move by Hubbard,” Reitman writes.  “It was probably not lost on L. Ron Hubbard that the most popular therapist and self-help guru in America, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, was also a minister.”

Above all, however, Hubbard had found a way to place Scientology beyond the reach of the law. “As practitioners of ‘mental science,’ Dianetics and Scientology auditors had been scrutinized for lacking the appropriate medical or psychological licenses,” Reitman explains. “[A]s clergy, they could counsel whomever they wanted, under the protection of a church. They could also claim tax-exempt status.”

By the 1960s, Scientology appealed to certain of the baby boomers who were challenging all of the old assumptions, including religious ones. “Had the sixties never happened,” writes Reitman, “Scientology might have gone the way of other fringe movements and died a quiet death. Instead, repositioned as a mystical quest rather than an alternative health therapy or religious movement, Scientology rode the countercultural wave.”

Scientology regarded a number of conventional sources of authority, including psychiatry, journalism and government, as deadly enemies. Fearful of scrutiny by law enforcement, IRS agents and reporters, Scientology adopted a policy designed to detect and purge unreliable members and organized “a clandestine army of informants” to conduct counter-espionage. Hubbard himself went into hiding and was never seen in public after 1980.

After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the focus of the book turns to his disciple and successor, David Miscavige, whom Reitman describes as “volatile and driven.” Miscavige presided over a landmark settlement of IRS tax claims against Scientology: “The war is over!” he proclaimed to a gathering of 10,000 Scientologists at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1993. “The future is ours.” But, as Reitman points out, he also headed the organization as it confronted new crises, including the criminal prosecution that resulted after the death of a member who had been forcibly confined for treatment of a mental illness.

Miscavige, she writes, is “a relentless promoter, cooler and less eccentric than L. Ron Hubbard,” and “under his leadership, Scientology’s brand would become flashier.” His greatest coup was the recruitment of Tom Cruise to serve as the spokesman for Scientology: “This guy is so famous,” exulted Miscavige, according to one of the author’s sources, “he could change the face of Scientology forever.”

The chapter about the “seduction” of Tom Cruise is the juiciest tidbit in the whole book.  When the initial “audit” of the young action star revealed that he was afraid of guns, Miscavige took him skeet shooting at Scientology’s secret base at Gilman Hot Springs in the California desert.  Still, when some of the “hidden truths” of Scientology were finally revealed to Cruise after seven years of membership, he “freaked out and was like, ‘What the f—- is this science fiction s—-?’ ” or so says one source. Still, Cruise fulfilled his promise as a proselytizer: “Tom talked and acted as if he were a clone of David Miscavige.”

Reitman makes no prophecies about the fate of Scientology, which she characterizes as a “fundamentalist” faith with its own apostates, many of whom were happy to speak with her. (To its credit, so was the Church of Scientology.) “Whether it will endure in spite of that rests on whether its basic mission — to ‘clear’ the planet and thus create a Scientology world — remains vital to its flock, and to their children.” The rest of us, thanks to Reitman’s work, can only watch and wonder.

Is Religious School Tuition Deductible?

Paying taxes may be one of life’s great certainties, but
there’s a bit more wiggle room when it comes to tax deductions.

Michael Sklar, a California accountant and Orthodox father
of six, will appear in a federal Tax Court in Los Angeles in October as he pursues
a long legal struggle to claim the cost of his children’s religious education
as a tax deduction.

Sklar noted that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows
followers of the Church of Scientology to write off the cost of religious
instruction, which many say violates the First Amendment clause banning
government support of a religion. No matter what the outcome, Sklar has raised
important questions about how tax breaks for religious institutions are applied
and whether constitutionally mandated church-state separation bars such tax

Sklar’s crusade has potentially enormous financial
implications for the families of 200,000 Jewish day school students, as well as
for non-Jewish parochial and religious school students. Altogether, parents of
such students spend an estimated $11 billion annually in tuition. Sklar’s fight
also could have implications for families that spend money on supplementary
religious instruction for their children.

The U.S. Supreme Court planted the seeds of this conflict in
a 1989 case, Hernandez vs. Commissioner. In that case, the Church of
Scientology claimed that fees for its auditing sessions — a kind of spiritual
training that can cost thousands of dollars — should count as tax-deductible
charitable contributions, just like gifts to other religious institutions.
Ironically, the church said its auditing was no different than tax-deductible
High Holiday seats in synagogues, dedicated Masses or pews in churches.

But the high court rejected the plea, distinguishing between
fees for tangible services and charitable contributions, which are made
voluntarily for more intangible spiritual benefits, such as synagogue seats or
church pews.

In 1993, Congress amended the Tax Code to reflect the
Supreme Court’s so-called quid-pro-quo ruling, barring tax deductions for the
auditing sessions. That same year, however, the IRS began allowing
Scientologists to claim auditing fees as deductions.

Sklar amended his 1991 returns, seeking an additional $315
in allowances, reasoning that he was similarly entitled to write off some of
his children’s religious education. In 1994, the IRS denied the claim,
referring in a letter to a specific “settlement” between the agency and
Scientology that never had been made public. That motivated Sklar to warn the
IRS that on his 1994 tax return he was seeking $13,240 in deductions for his
children’s religious education, a move he knew was likely to raise red flags.
Subsequently, the IRS audited Sklar. He challenged the move and wound up in Tax

Sklar, who represented himself, was rebuffed. The Tax Court
judge said the religious schooling of Sklar’s children differed from
Scientology training. Sklar challenged the decision in the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals in 2000.

In that action, an ultra-Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of
America, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Sklar’s behalf. Sklar was seeking
to recoup $15,000 in deductions for the 1995 tax year, which represented the
religious portion of his children’s day-school classes.

The three-judge panel denied Sklar’s bid in 2002, but one
judge, Barry Silverman, wrote, “Why is Scientology training different from all
other religious training?” Silverman recommended that the debate be resolved in
court litigation but indicated that he thought the solution was to deny such
deductions to all religious groups.

To do the contrary, “would open floodgates of amended tax
returns,” said Marc Stern, assistant national executive director and general
counsel of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).Â

Yet Stern suggested that the Supreme Court set a different
precedent in Muller vs. Allen, a 1983 Minnesota case that allowed parents of
public and private school students to deduct purely educational costs, such as
tuition, textbooks and transportation.

“If Congress were to create genuine deductions available for
all educational expenses, whether public or private, it’s pretty clear that
would be constitutional,” Stern said.

Nevertheless, AJCongress probably would oppose such a
measure, believing that such tax deductions amount to “a tax subsidy of
religious schools,” he said.

If the court ruled for Sklar, “that’s a deduction for people
who can afford to send their kids to private schools and reduces tax revenue
for public education that serves the poorest,” Stern added.

However, David Zweibel, executive vice president for
governmental and public affairs for Agudah, said Stern is invoking a stereotype
of wealthy prep school families, while in fact, the Catholics and Jews who make
up the bulk of the religious school population are not wealthy. Zweibel also
warned of “mass upheaval” in America should the Tax Court ban tax breaks for
religious activity generally.

“If the Scientology deduction is barred, what about the seat
in shul?” he asked. “If the notion is that participation in churches and
synagogues is not deductible, it would create mass uproar.”

Agudah is keeping a close watch on the case and may file
another brief supporting Sklar, should he return to the appellate courts,
Zweibel said. Â