Reaction to this month's Season 2 premiere of the Emmy-nominated Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath series has been swift, from the religion's international spiritual headquarters in Clearwater and nationwide.
Two dueling online petitions have emerged since the Aug. 15 premiere: one calling for the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Scientology's tax exempt status. That one was launched by Jeffrey Augustine, Scientology researcher and husband of former Scientologist Karen de la Carriere, who served aboard the church's ship Apollo with founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The other, launched by a teenage Scientologist in India, calls for the cancellation of the series, alleging it is a "hate show" inciting violence.
But the most notable response comes from the Church of Scientology itself, which has historically prohibited members from reading or acknowledging negative media about the church.
Now the church's Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination arm is circulating form letters for parishioners to send to A&E advertisers, asking them to pull sponsorship of the show's "religious hate and bigotry which leads to violence."
Mike Rinder, a former senior Scientology official and consulting producer of the A&E show, said that's an unprecedented move. Historically, the "attack the attacker" response is handled solely by the organization's Office of Special Affairs.
Traditionally, Scientology has not wanted "people going on the Internet and even knowing there is a show happening — they fear some of them will watch and be influenced," Rinder said Wednesday. "Presumably this show has gotten such wide coverage and acceptance that they figure everyone knows about it already."
Similar to other websites Scientology has launched against defectors and journalists, the church launched leahremini aftermath.org in response to the show's first season. It features interviews with family members of Remini and Rinder, criticizing their characters and motives.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Church of Scientology International spokesperson Karin Pouw said the A&E series has inspired violent acts and death threats against the church.
"The singular goal of the program is to make money and boost ratings by spreading salacious lies and inciting hate and violence to promote A&E's ugly brand of religious intolerance, bigotry and hatred," Pouw said. "Scientologists have every right to answer back and make their voices heard about this disgraceful show."
A&E senior vice president Dan Silberman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Scientology also launched a page on the website calling Clearwater Calvary Baptist Church Pastor Willy Rice "an incendiary bigot who uses his pulpit to disparage other religions and groups he doesn't like" in response to Rice calling Scientology an abusive and dangerous cult.
Rice made the comments in a statement to his congregation last month while announcing A&E producers were planning to film a town hall forum for the series at his McMullen-Booth Road church. Silberman told the Times previously the network was not involved and the filming will not take place.
The page condemns Rice's prior statements that homosexuality "is harmful for our culture, our children" and Islam is a "messed up religion."
Rice said Wednesday that Scientology's response was predictable and noted the church was attacking critics rather than countering allegations of abuse, fraud and manipulation. Rice said the A&E series has been crucial in educating the public about Scientology's alleged wrongs, like forced disconnection of families, abuse, financial exploitation and intimidation of critics.
"We want to be part of just sharing the truth about what we think is an abusive presence in our area," Rice said.
Rice said that since his statement in July, a group of about a dozen people wearing shirts from Scientology's Narconon drug rehabilitation program have attended Sunday services. He said they are welcome.
"Our church doesn't hide," Rice said. "We don't charge people $100,000 to find out what we believe in."
Pouw said the Change.org petition for the IRS to investigate and revoke Scientology's tax exempt status is "no different than if a group of white supremacists filed a petition calling for the NAACP to have its exemption revoked."
In his petition, Augustine says Scientology's tax exemption should be investigated because leader David Miscavige has become "the sole managing agent of Scientology," abolishing the system of corporate checks and balances promised in the 1992 exemption application. He also alleges Scientology has refused to grant refunds to dissatisfied members as represented in its application for tax exemption; uses tax-exempt dollars to engage in harassing critics and journalists; covered up child sexual abuse; abuses foreign workers and forces them to work for low or no pay; and other misbehaviors.
"Scientology is the alter ego of David Miscavige, and they lied to the IRS to get their tax exemption," Augustine said Thursday.
In Clearwater, Scientology owns $207 million worth of property under its name, 74 percent of which is tax exempt for religious purposes. It paid more than $1 million in property taxes in 2016 on the remaining 26 percent.
City Manager Bill Horne said the city has no official position on whether Scientology's tax exemption should be examined. But he said given "their level of activity, the public could benefit from them paying more taxes."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.