Ex-Scientologists Question IRS Ruling

Source: Boston Globe
Date: November 7, 1993

Members welcome tax-exempt status

The recent federal government decision giving the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status has the group exulting that its 40-year struggle for official respectability has at last been won.

But several former members interviewed since the decision last month say they are perplexed by the decision, and that the government should not have accorded the church its new status.

The church finally qualified for tax-exempt status last month after a struggle that began almost as soon as the church was founded, in 1954, and featured some of Scientology's most confrontational tactics -- including burglary, theft of government documents, public denunciations and lawsuits. Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of church founder L. Ron Hubbard, and other senior members were jailed in the 1970s for breaking into offices at the Internal Revenue Service and the US Department of Justice, stealing documents and planting listening devices.

The IRS has refused to elaborate on its decision except to say that the church founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard finally tried the one strategy it had avoided for most of its history: cooperation with tax agents.

"Over the last two years or so . . . the church provided the kind of extensive, detailed, specific information the IRS needed to enable us to make a legal determination that the Church of Scientology is in fact . . . an organization operated exclusively for religious and charitable purposes," said IRS spokesman Frank Keith.

Members call Scientology "an applied religious philosophy." Its goal, according to their literature, is "a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war." The church's beliefs - revealed only to long-term members - attribute life to 75-million-year-old thetans, creatures that inhabit human bodies and account for good and evil.

Some former members interviewed recently who oppose the government's decision accuse Scientology of continuing to harass its opponents and mislead its members, abuses for which the group has long been criticized.

But several current members of the Church of Scientology said they have been happy with their experience.

Local Scientologists say the tax decision is a welcome boost for an unconventional religion they say has improved their lives spiritually and helped them in business and personal life.

Scientology "has helped to make me independently wealthy," said businessman Lawrence F. Byrnes of Chichester, N.H. A member since 1973, Byrnes has developed and sold several businesses, contributing some of the proceeds to Scientology programs.

"It's made me realize the spiritual potential I have," said Victoria Porras of Paxton, a graphic designer who first encountered Scientology in her homeland, Colombia, in 1981. "I have learned in the most wonderful way about life, the management of my business, and about my art."

But some former members say those who remain in the church will need the tax exemption - because members typically spend tens of thousands of dollars on Scientology courses.

A Massachusetts man whose son was a member of the church for about four years, beginning in Boston, said his son has receipts for $15,000 he spent on Scientology services.

The father, who asked not to be identified because he and his son fear harassment, said the younger man's losses were "probably closer to $20,000 to $25,000" because he worked for the church at below minimum wage to get discounts on courses.

After "six to nine months of negotiation," the church refunded most fees for which he had receipts, the father said.

Jerry Whitfield of Los Angeles was with the Church of Scientology for 10 years and worked for Narconon, Scientology's drug treatment program. Whitfield said church staff interview new members "until someone has a very good composite of your financial circumstances" and recommend courses costing as much money as a member can raise.

"Maybe they find you have $75,000 available, whether you know it or not, by mortgaging your house or selling belongings," he said. "One effect of finding out you can come up with that much money is to think that this must be fate."

Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology, rejects criticism that the church is geared to profit, saying charges by former members are motivated by their own prospect of financial gain, either from lawsuits against the church, or from running businesses designed to help ex-church members.

"Thirteen years ago, current management kicked those people out, so why should we be criticized by the very people we kicked out and those who supported them?" Jentzsch said. "The IRS did the most extensive, in-depth analysis of the church ... of any organization in the history of this country and gave us full recognition as a tax-exempt religious organization."

The church points to projects that use Scientology to benefit the community, including an independent school in Milton, Delphi Academy, and church-sponsored drug education programs, such as Drug Free Marshals for children and Boston Rocks Against Drugs, which encourages entertainers to speak out against drug use.

The IRS decision is embedded in more than 30 separate IRS letters ruling on the status of hundreds of Scientology-related organizations.

Church spokesman Marty C. Rathbun said the church had the support of other religious groups in its quest for tax-exempt status.

Indeed, in a suit over whether payments for services such as auditing are tax deductible, the American Jewish Congress intervened on the side of the Scientologists.

"But we never took a positon on whether they were otherwise qualified to be tax exempt," said Marc D. Stern of the American Jewish Congress.

Stern argues that the recent IRS decision should not be understood as "a ruling about their legitimacy as a church.

"If anybody wants to set up as a church and have all the trappings, it's almost impossible for the IRS to prove fraud if you're careful about the bookkeeping," Stern said. "Besides, anybody who needs the endorsement of the IRS has some very severe problems."