CLEARWATER — The Baptist preacher stepped to the stage, his image projected on two mega screens behind him, and looked out at nearly 2,000 parishioners filling his worship center.
"Scientology is a cult," Calvary Church Pastor Willy Rice said into his microphone Wednesday evening.
"Scientology is dangerous. It is dangerous to those within and without, and Scientology should be exposed and opposed, not only by committed Christians but by moral, law abiding citizens who care about human rights and human justice everywhere."
Since Scientology settled in Clearwater in 1975 under a false name, then later declared the city its international spiritual headquarters, there is still distrust within the community. As allegations of human trafficking, physical and emotional abuse, and financial exploitation abounds, Scientology has continued to buy more land, becoming downtown's largest property owner with more than $200 million worth of known real estate.
Because the 152-year-old Calvary shares this city with Scientology's headquarters, because reports of abuse and secrecy continue, Rice said it is his obligation "to take a stand."
On Wednesday he dedicated his quarterly pastor's forum to discussing Scientology, a relatively unprecedented public condemnation by a local religious leader.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw called Rice's "uninformed tirade" un-Christian and un-American.
"Where Christianity teaches love, the only message of his divisive and provocative rhetoric about Scientology and Scientologists is hate," Shaw said. "Why seek to provoke harm to your neighbors just because you do not understand what they believe?"
Andrew Walker-Cornetta, a doctoral candidate and assistant instructor at Princeton University's Department of Religion, said one faith leader declaring another religious movement a cult can be problematic. It more often is a way for the speaker to affirm their own belief system, to promote their religion over another.
He said the term can "foreclose inquiry rather than encourage it" because branding it as a cult discourages listeners to ask additional questions.
"This pastor's claims are certainly constructive for his own purposes," Walker-Cornetta said. "They affirm his community's practices ... This is part of a movement and larger history of tangling over religious authority in America."
But Rice told his audience the urgency to speak out against Scientology is not about beliefs. He acknowledged some might question Christianity's dogma about a carpenter who was nailed to a cross, died, was buried, rose again and is expected to return to Earth on a white horse.
"Now that's a crazy story," he said.
It is Scientology's documented history, he said, that sets it apart. Rice spent much of his 90-minute lecture giving a history of the 70-year-old religion, which was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and how it spent its early years in Clearwater infiltrating police, government officials, journalists and attempting to destroy the lives of its critics.
"Many people in our area feel threatened and terrorized by the reputation that the Church of Scientology has earned through their aggressive attacks on anyone who dares to criticize them or stand in their way," Rice said.
Although Scientology calls itself a church, a mostly Christian term, and uses symbols that resemble Christian crosses, Rice said "the two world views are mutually exclusive."
Daniel Alvarez, a senior instructor of religious studies at Florida International University, said Scientology might have qualities that appear cult-like: it demands complete loyalty from parishioners, attacks critics, refuses to be transparent, isolates people from families and works in secret.
But all new religions, he said, emerge with "humble beginnings." Jesus Christ's claims 2,000 years ago that he was the son of God were then seen as blasphemous, Alvarez said.
The question is whether Scientology will evolve to enter the mainstream, like the monotheistic religions.
"Will Scientology take the steps necessary to achieve mainstream status and dissipate the doubt around the movement?" Alvarez said. "Will it turn out to be a fraud? ... They can dissipate all these questions by opening their books."
So what is next?
Rice closed his lecture by asking his congregation to pray for their "Scientology friends" and for a spiritual awakening. For kindness and understanding. For telling the truth.
The crowd listened quietly, respectfully. There were no protests, no outbursts. Then the auditorium cleared out.
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.