A group of volunteers helping to distribute free food for the Pinellas County public school system last week inserted pamphlets produced by the Church of Scientology into dozens of student meal boxes.
The activity violated school district policy against engaging in religious activities on school property and sparked criticism from some parents. It also brought an apology from a church spokesman, who said the volunteers were trying to do some good but were in error.
The pamphlets contain information about safety and prevention regarding the coronavirus, including tips on hand-washing and social distancing, and are part of Scientology’s pandemic safety campaign. The only mention of the church is on the back cover, which reads “Courtesy of Church of Scientology International."
Smartphone users who take a photo of a barcode on the back are directed to the Scientology.org website.
School officials were unaware that the volunteers were distributing the pamphlets, and the individuals were asked to stop as soon as the district learned what was happening, said Pinellas Schools spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas. The school system could not confirm how many booklets were distributed, or at which school sites.
Parents expressed outrage on social media over the weekend as families unpacked their food and some found the pamphlets.
“Churches in our community are offering service, not taking this opportunity to be self-serving," Kim Brasher-Lehto wrote on Facebook. "This is a blatant marketing scheme.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw called the insertion of pamphlets in school lunches “an error” and said the responsible volunteer has been corrected.
He said the church has printed 5 million copies of its Stay Well pamphlets as part of its online and in-person campaign to educate people across the world on health and safety protocols to protect against the coronavirus.
Last week, members of Scientology’s Volunteer Ministers program began delivering boxes of the pamphlets to convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and other establishments for the public to take copies as they please, Shaw said. He said 100,000 copies have been distributed in Clearwater and Tampa.
He said volunteers who helped Pinellas County Schools with meal distribution “confused the different volunteer activities and, in their exuberance, thought the booklets would be helpful to the families receiving the food distribution at home.”
Shaw said a church volunteer had disseminated 86 copies in meal bags before being asked to stop. He said the pamphlet campaign is meant to be offered in public for people to pick up voluntarily and not as an unsolicited insertion in food bags.
“We are sorry if anyone was offended,” he said. “Our volunteers offer assistance in the community for the same reason any volunteer does: they want to help.”
School Board member Bill Dudley, however, said the episode felt “kind of sneaky."
“It’s religious advertising, but kind of back-dooring it,” Dudley said. “I appreciate the volunteering. But it should be for the right reasons, not to promote something without authorization."
Board chairwoman Carol Cook said the volunteers were “way out of line.” Member Nicole Carr, however, blamed miscommunication and said the volunteers were trying to do something they thought was good.
“There are a lot of people out there in our community trying a lot of different things to help people, and how we all perceive helping people may be different," Carr said.
Scientology’s volunteer ministry has participated in disaster relief, community cleanups and other public service across the globe for more than 20 years. Shaw said the church has donated 50,000 gloves and 50,000 surgical masks to frontline personnel in Pinellas County amid the pandemic. He said volunteers have provided food delivery to the elderly in England, and volunteer ministers who are doctors have volunteered in emergency rooms in Italy.
But Scientology also designed its volunteer program as a strategy to gain legitimacy in mainstream society and solicit donations from wealthy members, said Chris Shelton, who was a member of Scientology’s workforce, the Sea Org, for 17 years before defecting in 2013.
The volunteer ministry expanded after the 9/11 attacks and Scientology leader David Miscavige began promoting the church’s public service efforts to solicit donations from members, Shelton said. Public outreach falls under a Scientology activity called “safepointing,” where church members attempt to insert themselves in society to create allies.
Scientology documents its volunteer work in its magazines and films groups cleaning up neighborhoods and helping in disaster relief for footage in videos used to promote the church.
“Those activities are never done for the intrinsic value of helping people,” said Dani Ballou, who worked in Scientology’s Sea Org on and off between 1981 and 2000. “It’s always done for the PR.”
Ballou said these volunteer acts are used as tools to solicit more donations from wealthy members, who contribute millions of dollars each year on top of fees paid for spiritual counseling and courses.
“Just the simple act of packing food into a bag for kids for the school system, you wouldn’t dare waste that opportunity to promote church,” she said.
Shaw, the church spokesman, said the church’s name was on the pamphlet “so that no one, including the Times, may claim that we were somehow hiding any 'connection’ to the church.”
Along with violating the school system’s policy against religious activities on school property, the pamphlet distribution breached two other policies. One says, “School Board property shall not be used for advertising or otherwise promoting the interests of any commercial, political, or other non-school agency or individual organization.” The other one requires that any materials passed on to students must be approved by the superintendent and School Board.
More than 80 volunteers signed up to help the district through the county’s emergency volunteer website, said Pinellas emergency management operations manager Joe Borries. Shaw said 20 church volunteers participated and that all ministers wear shirts and hats that clearly identify their affiliation.
The county’s volunteer website now clearly states school district policy for those who sign up to help at school food sites.
“Pinellas County School Board policy prohibits the promotion of any political campaigns,” it reads. “No organization or individual will be allowed to distribute any items that are not provided to them by the Pinellas County School Board.”
Christie Bruner, a mother of three in St. Petersburg, picked up food from North Shore Elementary on May 6. She didn’t see the booklet until she got home because volunteers placed the food in the trunk of her car to maintain social distancing. When she eventually flipped the pamphlet over to see it came from the Church of Scientology, she said she was taken aback.
“These volunteers took advantage of an opportunity to disseminate information that leads to their website,” Bruner said. “It was disseminated to vulnerable populations, people that have a need for food and resources and information. ... But that information should come from a place that is accredited to give health information."
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