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Romano: Scientology's problems on Clearwater land deal are of its own making

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is asking the Pinellas County Commissionfor for $26 million in tourist tax dollars, but the Church of Scientology says the facility doesn’t deserve it. The church sent a complaint to local and state officials, alleging the aquarium has a number of financial problems and should be denied the money. Aquarium director David Yates says the church’s allegations are unfounded. The aquarium last week sold a prime piece of downtown land to the city, against the church’s wishes.
Published Apr. 30, 2017

I've been bothered by these questions all week:

What if it had been the Roman Catholic diocese? What if it had been the Jewish Federations of North America?

What if it had been any religious organization other than the Church of Scientology being snubbed by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in a land purchase deal?

I can't say for certain, but I assume there would have been some consternation. A lot of hand-wringing. Maybe even some people in positions of prominence talking about religious discrimination.

After all, the Scientology folks offered more than triple the price the city of Clearwater agreed to pay the aquarium for a coveted piece of downtown land.

The church's lawyers have certainly suggested the deal is shady. As the Tampa Bay Times' Tracey McManus reported, the church has complained to the state attorney general, the auditor general and other elected officials about a nonprofit organization that receives taxpayer funds and then turns around and cuts a sweetheart deal with a government entity.

Eventually, I came to these conclusions:

1. Philosophically, the Scientologists have a point.

2. Realistically, they got what they deserve.

In the end, this wasn't about religion. Not in the theological sense.

Frankly, I don't think most people care about Scientology's religious doctrines, auditing exercises or past life theories. Pretty much every religion requires its own peculiar leaps of faith.

This is about Scientology's reputation in the community. And that's a mess.

Scientology has invited almost all of its problems with an aggressive, vindictive and bullying manner when it comes to dealing with anyone questioning the church's mission.

That includes elected officials, journalists, former members and even parents, children and siblings who are outside the church.

Defending your religion is entirely understandable. Hiring private detectives or conducting smear campaigns — and there seems to be ample evidence that this happens routinely — is something completely different.

Does the church have a right to be disappointed by the aquarium's land sale? Of course.

Does it have a right to question how a nonprofit could ignore the huge difference in offers? Absolutely.

But it seemed counterproductive to deliver an extensive and accusatory portfolio to the Pinellas County Commission that aquarium officials contend was rife with half-truths.

Commission chair Janet Long said it was ironic that the church accused the aquarium of acting in bad faith after Scientology officials assured her more than a year ago that they were not buying additional land in downtown Clearwater, only to snatch up numerous parcels under the guise of anonymous corporations.

"They are not honorable, trustworthy partners,'' Long said. "They intimidate. They bully. They lie. Those are not qualities you normally think of when you're talking about a church.''

I know very little about Scientology other than one of its core beliefs is that the truth is what you witness. And, around here, there are plenty of witnesses to the church's darker impulses.

Sadly, it doesn't need to be that way.

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