Scientology's political presence on the rise
What does Tom Cruise have to do with the anti-Ritalin bill passed by Utah's Legislature last year?
Nothing really, except both embody the teachings of Scientology and neither is going away anytime soon.
Cruise's hyping of his love life and religion on national television, including a couch-hopping appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show and an anti-psychiatry harangue on NBC's "Today Show," may only damage ticket sales to his latest movie - his career will likely survive. And so will Scientology. It is now 51 years old - young for a religion, but a testament to the organization's resilience. That's especially true in Utah where the Los Angeles-based church Scientology has a growing political presence.
"Bring it on," says Utah Scientologist Sandra Lucas about any negative publicity stirred by Cruise. Lucas is the Utah chapter president of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), the lobbying force behind a proposed ban on electroshock therapy, various measures aimed at carving out more rights for parents in the child welfare system and the anti-Ritalin legislation, which Lucas says will resurface during the next session.
Lucas says Cruise's public display represents growing awareness about the "national crisis" of children and adults being prescribed mind-altering drugs.
The anti-Ritalin bill, which would have prohibited school personnel from recommending that a parent seek behavioral treatment or psychotropic medicines for a child, has been endorsed twice by the Legislature and vetoed twice, by two governors.
Opponents sought to undermine the legislation by drawing attention to Scientology's involvement.
"Involvement and influence are different to me. I don't think [Scientologists] are gaining traction," said Jan Ferre, a Utah lobbyist for disabled and mental health advocacy groups. Ferre considers Scientology's views on mental health practices outdated and scientifically unsound.
But CCHR slowly has expanded since 1995 when Lucas, of Cottonwood Heights, took over. Formerly a one-woman show, the chapter recently added two part-time researchers.
Also, the group has logged some legislative wins in recent years on the parental-rights front and in fighting mental health parity, in part because the ideologies that inform CCHR gel with those espoused by the religious far right.
CCHR, a nonprofit group "dedicated to investigating and exposing psychiatric violations of human rights," does not show up as a contributor to Utah campaigns. Nor does Lucas, who spends no money wooing lawmakers, according to financial disclosures filed with the state elections office.
CCHR has some money at its disposal - $34,685 according to its 2003 tax filings, most of which is spent on Lucas' salary. But with 50 to 75 dues-paying members, it doesn't boast much grass-roots support.
The Church of Scientology now claims to have millions of members in 154 countries; inflated numbers, say skeptics. The Salt Lake City Church of Scientology has 300 members.
No matter. CCHR has powerful allies. The current president of the Church of Scientology International is the former Utahn, Heber C. Jentzsch, who was raised Mormon.
Also, Gayle Ruzicka of the arch-conservative Utah Eagle Forum often joins forces with Lucas on legislation to curb state intervention in family affairs.
"I am always happy to have people join our cause. In the words of Phyllis Schlafly [National Eagle Forum founder], 'You can vote for the candidate of my choice for any reason you choose,' '' said Ruzicka.
Nowhere is this partnership more apparent than in the parental-rights movement, fueled by horror stories of parents falsely accused of child abuse and fanned by other conservative groups, such as the Sutherland Institute. CCHR also has a loose affiliation with anti-immigration groups through parental-rights advocate and former legislator Matt Throckmorton, who lobbied for CCHR in 2004.
Lucas denies any direct ties to the Eagle Forum.
Ruzicka is a friend, who has taught her a lot about being a straight-shooter, Lucas said, but "there are times we disagree." Lucas' interest in parental rights stems from her belief that the child welfare system is a "cash cow for the mental health industry."
"I don't have the power or staff or resources that the psychiatrists have. The only thing I have going for me is I tell the truth and I'm relentless. Without integrity, I'm lost," said Lucas.
Critics see Scientologists as the ones who care about money. They have called it a money-making cult that will stop at nothing to pursue its anti-psychiatry agenda and silence its opponents.
In the 1970s, 11 Scientologists were convicted on charges stemming from break-ins of government offices. The organization also allegedly has hired private investigators to dig up dirt on its detractors, sometimes bombarding them with expensive lawsuits.
But parishioners say the church has reformed. The IRS seems to think it has; in 1993 the tax collection agency dropped its 40-year tax dispute with the organization and declared it a tax-exempt religion.
Soon after the ruling, the church stepped up its lobbying efforts at the national level.
By the late 1990s, the religion had gained some legitimacy, at least in Washington, D.C. Aided by its star power - Cruise, John Travolta, Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) are among its practitioners - Scientology began enlisting members of Congress and former President Clinton to come down on the German government for allegedly discriminating against the church.
The church kept a low profile, paying professional lobbyists to press its cause or relying on CCHR, which skeptics call a front group designed to recruit Scientologists and replace psychiatry with Dianetics. The applied philosophy of Scientology, Dianetics was devised by church founder and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard as a way of ridding the body of repressed emotions and physical pain.
CCHR national was organized in 1969. Utah's chapter started sometime in the 1980s.
Lora Mengucci, special affairs director for Salt Lake's church of Scientology, says the church doesn't finance CCHR and that any money raised is used to pay staff members and operate natural disaster relief efforts and substance abuse and literacy programs.
Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at Alberta University who has written about Scientology, says CCHR has managed to expose psychiatric abuses in Canada and Australia.
But Kent says the church and CCHR pose a danger in that they promote mental health practices that have no scientific merit.
"It's an ideologically driven intrusion into medical practice," said Kent.
Lucas, who got interested in Scientology after her first husband died, bristles at the suggestion that Scientology's mission is to replace psychiatry.
"The definition of a front group is a hidden group. We are pretty upfront about who we are. We're interested in social betterment. So are the LDS and Catholic churches. I don't see how we are any different," she said.
Scientology has bettered Lucas' life, she said.
"I've been looking for answers since I was very, very young and looked into Eastern religions, but had a hard time going on faith," said Lucas. "Scientology is a religion, because it deals with you as spiritual being and your relationship to a supreme being. But it's also an applied philosophy that has helped me find out more about myself. I know who I am and what my purpose is."