A crusader sees evil in Fla. city

Scientology: A millionaire opens a center in Clearwater, Fla., a hub of the religion, to battle what he calls a dangerous cult.

January 19, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's a modest, two-story office building in a sleepy downtown. But for Bob Minton, it is the field office for nothing less than a war for the heart and soul of this quiet coastal city.

"We're going to liberate Clearwater," Minton declares.

Whether Clearwater needs liberating is open to debate. But after about 25 years of serving, often uneasily, as one of the Church of Scientology's most important bases in the country, Clearwater finds itself once again drawn into a battle over the controversial group.

Minton, 53, is a retired millionaire from New England who has protested and funded lawsuits against the church, which he says is a cult that has destroyed members' lives and trampled on the civil rights of its opponents.

Early this month, he brought his fight to the heart of the church's Clearwater operations by opening a center here to provide information on the group and provide "exit counseling" for members who want to leave.

The church, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and perhaps best known for such celebrity members as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, has drawn many detractors over the years -- from disenchanted former adherents to the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS fought a decadeslong battle with the church before finally restoring its tax-exempt status as a religion.

But it perhaps has never come up against someone like Minton, who could be dismissed as just another gadfly but for the fact that he seems willing to put considerable money where his mouth is.

To date, Minton estimates he has spent $2.5 million on his crusade.

"The only difference between me and any other critic," Minton says, "is I was fortunate enough to make some money to be able to retire early and fight these guys."

Church officials have fought back: Pickets have descended on Minton's various homes to denounce him as a religious bigot, and he says his family and friends have been harassed. The church sought to block the center from opening by offering the seller of the building twice the $325,000 that Minton paid.

"They're here only for one purpose, to harass Scientology," says Mike Rinder, a spokesman for the church. "It's an escalation of his campaign."

Named for Scientologist

The center is named the Lisa McPherson Trust, to memorialize a Scientologist who died here four years ago while in the care of fellow church members.

The church faces criminal charges in connection with McPherson's death, and Minton has helped to fund a family member's civil suit against Scientology. Both cases are scheduled to come to trial this year.

The case has created much turmoil in Clearwater.

Opponents of the church, including Minton, have picketed Scientology buildings to keep McPherson's case in the public eye. Scientologists have picketed the Clearwater Police Department and the St. Petersburg Times newspaper for its treatment of the church.

The church, founded in 1954, has long been controversial.

Its philosophy is part sci-fi, part self-help: Hubbard wrote that people are spirits who were banished to Earth 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler and need to be "cleared" of problems and ailments that they've picked up in previous lives by going through a series of "auditing" sessions with a trained counselor.

Critics say Scientology is actually a business that coerces members to spend tens of thousands of dollars on its literature and to go through auditing.

The IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1967, reversing the decision 26 years later only after a costly battle in which Scientology launched numerous lawsuits and its own investigation and infiltration of the federal agency.

A rough beginning

Scientology has also had a tumultuous time with Clearwater officials. The city and the church have sparred from the beginning.

"They came in under cover," said Rita Garvey, a former mayor and commissioner. "That was not a good way of starting off."

Scientology bought its first building in Clearwater, the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel, in 1975 under a pseudonym, United Churches of Florida. Documents seized in an FBI raid of Scientology properties elsewhere would reveal that the church arrived with plans "for taking control of key points in the Clearwater area" by infiltrating the government, police, media and other institutions.

Outraged officials held investigative hearings in 1982 to find out more about the church that had settled in their midst. The city subsequently passed an ordinance requiring strict recordkeeping and disclosure methods for religious and charitable groups, but the church sued and ultimately got the law overturned as unconstitutional.

Properties worth $40 million

The church continued to buy properties around town and now owns more than 30, valued at about $40 million. The church has begun construction of a giant training and counseling building that when completed will be downtown's largest structure.

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