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A Times Editorial

Freedom to speak against church abuses

Over parts of three years, two FBI agents methodically investigated the Church of Scientology's treatment of its workers and interviewed dozens of witnesses. No criminal charges were filed, and the investigation apparently lost steam after a federal court rejected human trafficking claims against the church because of First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom. But the First Amendment does not give religious organizations absolute immunity from criminal prosecution, and the amendment's free speech protections should empower current and former Scientology members to continue to speak out about their treatment and call for changes.

In a revealing two-part series that concluded Monday, Tampa Bay Times staff writers Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin traced the progress of the FBI investigation. The reporters interviewed at least 15 witnesses who participated in the investigation and reviewed records such as court documents and information exchanged between the witnesses and the agents. Those accounts are strikingly similar in detailing allegations of Scientology staff members enduring physical and mental abuse, long work hours for little or no pay, and severe repercussions if they attempted to leave the church. If they did make it off church property, former church members told the FBI, they were often followed, confronted and threatened if they did not return.

One former Scientology staffer told the agents how he was kicked and punched in the face while working at the church, and others have claimed physical assaults were common. Another former staffer drew agents a map showing where staffer passports were locked away in a downtown Clearwater church building. From interviews and records, the Times described the extreme lengths Scientology officials would take to prevent church workers from leaving and their aggressive efforts to bring them back if they left church property.

The Church of Scientology relies heavily on First Amendment religious freedoms to avoid scrutiny and defend its treatment of its staffers. It argues that its practices are not out of line with those of other religious orders that impose lifestyle restrictions and isolation from the outside world. But the public accounts of mistreatment by former Scientology staff members are not typical of other well-known religious organizations.

Yet Scientology continues to benefit from constitutional protections for religious freedom. The FBI investigation apparently went cold after a federal civil court judge ruled against longtime Scientology workers who alleged the church violated labor laws and engaged in human trafficking. A three-judge appellate panel upheld the ruling in July, acknowledging the restrictive conditions but concluding the Scientology staffers voluntarily worked there. The church also continues to benefit from tax-exempt status granted to religious organizations.

As the Church of Scientology benefits from First Amendment protections, so should current and former members of the church who speak out against mistreatment and seek to reform it.

Freedom to speak against church abuses 01/14/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 6:54am]
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