Scientology should get no PR help from Clearwater police, editorial board writes

The Clearwater police chief should be neutral, and nothing more, in dealings with the church.
The Church of Scientology's international headquarters is downtown Clearwater. The church is downtown's largest landowner with at least $245 million of property. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
The Church of Scientology's international headquarters is downtown Clearwater. The church is downtown's largest landowner with at least $245 million of property. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published February 11
Updated February 12

Clearwater police have to tread a careful line when dealing with the Church of Scientology, given the city’s fraught history with the church. Chief Dan Slaughter is mindful that he can’t treat one federally recognized, tax-exempt religious organization differently from any other. But optics matter too, and nothing in the Constitution requires the chief to pose for photos with church officials. The department should be wary of creating an unintended impression of anything but strict impartiality.

MORE COVERAGE: Leah Remini’s ‘Scientology’ viewers suspicious of Clearwater police, who are treading carefully

The Tampa Bay Times’ Tracey McManus reported on how the TV series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, starring the actress who defected from the church in 2013, has fueled the latest controversy over Scientology. The criticism, for now, is focused primarily on Slaughter. McManus wrote that critics are upset that Scientology can hire Clearwater officers for extra-duty assignments, such as providing security at events, considering the church’s long record of going after its detractors. Slaughter defends the policy in constitutional terms, saying in a video posted to YouTube earlier this month and a guest column in the Times: “We don’t get to pick and choose whom we protect and serve, and nor should we.”

That’s the right stance for a police chief, who should dispatch resources equitably to serve all neighborhoods and residents. And while critics have a point that Scientology is a religion unlike any other, Slaughter is wise to try to take a neutral posture. For one thing, the city must be careful not to open itself up to claims of discrimination. But two pictures, one from 2015 and another from 2016, of him posing with church officials in publicity photos belie that neutrality. As Remini pointed out, church officials being seen smiling with the police chief legitimizes Scientology. That’s more than is required of the chief.

Scientology has hardly always been neighborly since it arrived in Clearwater four decades ago. It’s the largest downtown landowner, yet is notoriously secretive and insular. When coordination with the city is required, officials work behind the scenes rather than in the sunshine, such as the church’s effort in 2017 to keep the city from buying a piece of property next to City Hall. Scientology wanted the land for itself and tried to lobby public officials in private, invite-only meetings. Thankfully, the City Council stood up for Clearwater and went forward with the purchase.

Slaughter has called the current situation a “public relations nightmare.” Hopefully going forward, he’ll work to better manage his own PR, taking to heart concerns of the Clearwater residents who worry that glad-handing with Scientology officials looks like an endorsement, or at least an embrace, of the church and its tactics. Slaughter indicated he intends to put some distance between himself and the church — there won’t be any more photos — which is a healthy choice in the long-tense relationship between the city and the church.