CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY


Celebrity faithful strive to put


halo atop organization.

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by: Douglas Frantz

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sunday, February 15, 1998



Los Angeles, California

John Travolta stood in the parking garage below City Hall, waiting for his sleek black Jaguar. He had just accepted an award on behalf of the Church of Scien-tology from the public works commission, and he was talking earnestly about what the religion means to him. ‘Through Scientology, you learn to examine your life and be more productive,” Travolta said as three senior church officials hovered nearby. ‘You can make sure you avoid any pitfalls and you can face your challenges and handle them.”

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Travolta, referred to within the church hierarchy as J.T., is the brightest star in Scientology’s galaxy of celebrities. He is a box-office draw whose value as a public representative of the much-debated group has soared along with his rejuvenated career. But the star of “Pulp Fiction” and other movies is far from alone in stumping for Scientology. More than any church that has begun on the religious fringe, the Church of Scientology has cultivated a potent roster of celebrity members — including actors Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley, musicians Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea and television legal analyst Greta Van Susteren — in

its struggle to win acceptance as a mainstream religion and spread its message at home and abroad.


Other celebrities also become visible representatives for their religions, like actor Richard Gere, who has pushed Buddhist causes. But Scientology’s use of celebrities is part of a calculated, three-decade effort that religious scholars and others say is extraordinary for a religious group. Scientology has even established separate facilities, called Celebrity Centres, that cater to prominent members by offering private counseling and courses and even emergency health services. Although the facilities are open to all Scientologists, internal church documents show that their primary purpose is to recruit celebrities and use the celebrities’ prestige to help expand Scientology.


In turn, sonic of those celebrities have become prominent advocates for Scientology.

Last fall Travolta criticized the German government’s stand on Scientologv before Congress and spoke out against a British television documentary that was highly critical of the organization’s founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard.


In the March issue of George magazine, Travolta describes a conversation last April in which President Clinton promised to try to help ease the treatment of Scientol-oists in Germany, where the church is locked in a fight with the government over accusations of discrimination. At the time, Travolta was starting to film “Primary Colors,” the upcoming movie in which he portrays a womanizing Southern governor seeking the presidency.


Alley is the spokeswoman for a drug treatment program affiliated with Scientology and founded a church in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas . Cruise wrote to Congress on behalf of German Scientologists last fall, and he and his wife, Nicole Kidman, praise Scientology’s founder in an exhibition on Hubbard’s life at a Scientology center in Los Angeles, California.


Anne Archer, who had a leading role in “Fatal Attraction,” among other movies, has appeared at pro-Scientology rallies in Germany. Isaac Hayes attacked news-papers articles critical of the church on his New York radio show and joined Lisa Marie Presley in opening a Scientology church in Memphis, Tenn.

“Scientology works for these people, and they just want to give to others what works for them,” said Marty Rathbun, a senior church official. “We don’t give them a badge and send them out. They do it on their own.” For an organization fighting to win mainstream acceptance in an atmosphere of great suspicion, association with celebrities in the public mind can be very beneficial. “These groups are often crying out for legitimacy, and they seek it any way they can, especially if they are under duress in public,” said James Richardson, a professor of

sociology and law at the University of Nevada at Reno.



“What’s phenomenal is the success that Scientology has had with the entertainment industry.” Scientology has needed any help it could get in presenting a positive image to counter the often-negative public perceptions. In 1993, only after a bitter campaign and a two-year government inquiry did the Internal Revenue Service, IRS, grant the church the tax-exempt status accorded other religions. Church staff members remain under criminal investigation in connection with the 1995 death of a Scientologist at a church facility in Clearwater, Florida.


Many critics and some governments, including Germany and France, still question whether Scientology is even a religion, saying instead that it is a moneymaking enterprise because of the high fees it charges members for its courses. In response, Scientologists, argue that they are victims of religious intolerance. In Germany, for instance; church officials have documented nearly 1,000 instances of what they say is discrimination .against their members. It was Hubbard, himself who recognized the value in haying celebrity members. Hubbard, a writer, composer and painter who founded Scientology in 1954, saw early on that recruiting prominent people could bring quick recognition to his new religion. Beginning in the late 1960s Sientology built Celebrity Centres specifically to cater to artists and J actors. “The purpose of Celebrity Centre is to forward the expansion and popular-ization of Scientology through the arts,” Hubbard wrote in a church policy letter in 1973.


Ten Celebrity Centres exist around the world, with the largest and most successful in the former Chateau Elysee hotel, restored by Scientology near the Hollywood — Hills. The Celebrity Centre is open to all Scientologists, and on any given day members with backgrounds of all varieties can be seen taking the counseling and courses that constitute Scientology’s religious philosophy. But its special clientele is celebrities. In interviews and testimonials printed in Celebrity, a Scientology magazine, Scientologists praised the center as a spiritual retreat. “Celebrity Centre is truly an oasis in this town for every artist on any level in their career,” Travolta told the magazine in a recent issue. “This is an ultra-safe environment. It is the safest place in town for me. This is a place where I know I have friends I can trust.”


In several interviews arranged through church officials, prominent Scientologists talked about what they see as the special appeal of the church philosophy to people in creative fields. They described techniques that help them communicate better and focus mote clearly on their lives and careers.



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