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Scientology critics gather for weeklong conference

CLEARWATER — Several critics of the Church of Scientology, including the great-grandson of church founder L. Ron Hubbard, are scheduled to speak this week at a local conference organizers say will draw attention to "human rights abuses'' within the Scientology community.

Called "Flag Down 2014,'' the conference is a series of presentations planned today through Friday at various mid and North Pinellas venues. On Saturday, organizers plan a public protest of Scientology in downtown Clearwater.

But the church already has taken steps to at least partially restrict the protestors.

The conference, which is free and open to the public, begins at 6:30 p.m. today at the Minnreg hall, 6340 126th Ave. in Largo. Organizer Pete Griffiths of Ireland, who was a Scientologist for 21 years before leaving in 2008, said a rotation of speakers will talk throughout the week. They include former Scientologists, writers and others with deep knowledge of the church.

British journalist Russell Miller, author of Bare-faced Messiah, the noted Hubbard biography vigorously opposed by the church, is on the roster.

Author and BBC journalist John Sweeney, who has reported several stories on Scientology, will speak today. His book, Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, was published in 2013.

Griffiths said speakers will discuss a range of topics, including church working conditions, its money-raising tactics and Scientology's shunning practice, called disconnection.

Tuesday's session begins at 6:30 p.m., also at the Minnreg building. Wednesday afternoon and evening, organizers plan a bus tour of church facilities in Clearwater, where in 1976 Scientology established its worldwide spiritual center — known as the Flag Land Base.

Thursday night, more informational sessions are planned at a Clearwater Beach restaurant. Friday night, participants return to the Minnreg building for a performance by Jamie DeWolf, a slam poet, comedian and writer.

He is the grandson of Ron DeWolf, who was born L. Ron Hubbard Jr. The younger Hubbard claimed to have helped his father propel the Scientology movement in the 1950s. He later denounced Hubbard and changed his name.

Jamie DeWolf also became a sharp critic. He won acclaim this year for his spoken word piece, The God or the Man, which focused on his great-grandfather. He is scheduled to speak Friday night at Minnreg.

Organizers said they plan to present live streamed video of each presentation on the conference's website www.FlagDown.org.

Saturday's protest is scheduled to begin at midday and go until 5 p.m. Organizers said protestors intend to march peacefully near church properties.

They will find some sidewalks closed. The church recently secured city permits to close the sidewalk in front of its landmark Fort Harrison Hotel, saying workers will do test borings near buried utility lines. Also closed Saturday will be the sidewalk on the south side of Scientology's new Flag Building, which opened in November.

The church did not respond to a request for comment about the conference, the protest or its move to close sidewalks.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said organizers invited him and other City Council members to attend the conference. He wrote back, saying the officials had a conflict.

He said a Flag Down representative discussed the planned protest with city and police officials.

"I would hope any demonstration follows our guidelines and gives them an opportunity to express their free speech rights, without any problems,'' he said.

Scientology critics gather for weeklong conference 05/04/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 4, 2014 9:26pm]

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