For all the ways that Scientologists harass, threaten, stalk and personally attack anyone who dares to question their cult, their legal strikes are perhaps the most effective. That’s why it’s notable that Scientology has yet to issue a single legal threat against HBO for their wildly popular Going Clear documentary. (Note that filmmaker Alex Gibney has said their lawyers have sent him letters. It’s unclear how ‘legal’ they are.) In a recently interview with CNN Money, HBO CEO Richard Plepler stated that they have yet to receive a legal threat from Scientology. HBO of course got their ducks in a row before airing the show, with the head of their documentary division stating that there were “probably 160 lawyers” involved in fact checking the film. As for why he hasn’t heard from Scientology, Plepler said simply that facts cannot be challenged. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. I think the documentary bears up very well to any kind of scrutiny.”
Filmmaker Alex Gibney stated that their team of lawyers checked every detail to ensure that they would not be vulnerable to a protracted legal battle. “We were very rigorous in terms of how we checked our story, how we had it scrutinized extensively by lawyers – not only my own lawyers but by HBO’s lawyers.”
Now that the film is out and is a resounding success (it was the highest viewed documentary on HBO in ten years), Scientology is running scared. Going Clear revealed the malicious way that the cult achieved tax free status in America, by wiretapping, harassing and conspiring to intimidate IRS agents, which is basically business as usual for them. They didn’t meet the US Government’s requirements for a tax free religious organization and they still don’t. In a new editorial in the LA Times, Gibney lays out the reasons why Scientology should have it’s tax free status revoked. It’s a convincing, well reasoned essay that someone unfamiliar with the cult’s tactics can understand. Here’s some of what he wrote, with more at the source:
The church maintains that its activities are protected by the 1st Amendment as religious practices. Partially on that basis, the church convinced the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that Scientology should be tax-exempt and that all donations to the church should be tax-deductible. (The film shows that the church’s method of “convincing” the IRS featured lawsuits and vilification of its agents.)
In the past, critics of the church have called for its tax exemption to be revoked because it is not a “real religion.” I agree that tax-exemption isn’t merited, but not for that reason. The Church of Scientology has a distinct belief system which, despite its somewhat strange cosmology — mocked by the TV show “South Park” and many others — is not essentially more strange than, say, the idea of a virgin birth. Scientologists are entitled to believe what they want to believe. And the IRS website makes it clear that anyone is entitled to start a religion at any time without seeking IRS permission. To maintain the right to be tax-exempt, however, religions must fulfill certain requirements for charitable organizations. For example, they may not “serve the private interests of any individual” and/or “the organization’s purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.”
On these points alone, it is hard to see why Americans should subsidize Scientology through its tax-exemption.
Regarding “private interests,” it seems clear that Scientology is ruled by only one man, David Miscavige. Further, powerful celebrities within the church, particularly Tom Cruise, receive private benefits through the exploitation of low-wage labor (clergy members belonging to the Sea Org make roughly 40 cents an hour) and other use of church assets for his personal gain.
It appears that many church activities may have been either illegal or in violation of public policy. Numerous lawsuits, my film, other media accounts and an abandoned FBI investigation have turned up allegations of false imprisonment, human trafficking, wiretaps, assault, harassment and invasion of privacy. And the church doctrine of “disconnection,” in which members are forced to “disconnect” from anyone critical of the church, seems cruelly at odds with any reasonable definition of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
A proper criminal investigation that followed the money — a virtual river of cash from tax-exempt donations and fees — could sort out some of these issues. Or a congressional subcommittee investigation could force Miscavige — who was unwilling to answer questions for Wright’s book or the film — to testify under oath about allegations of abuse.
Gibney goes on to cite legal precedent for revoking an organization’s tax free status, and he states that it’s done over 100 times a year in the US. I really like the fact that he separates out the cult’s belief system from its criminal activities. I’ve heard this argument so many times from people unfamiliar with cults in general and Scientology in particular: that they’re welcome to believe/worship/practice whatever strange or bizarre thing they want. Of course they are, but it is illegal to harass, torture, imprison and control members. They ruin lives, separate families and engage in human rights abuses. Their tax free status should be revoked and this documentary is a strong step in the right direction.