Op-Ed

In the world of religious tax exemptions, does Scientology measure up?

In addition to being megalomaniac leaders of cult-like movements, the late L. Ron Hubbard and Donald Trump have shared an aversion to paying taxes. The founder of Scientology waged a ruthless battle to win a religious tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service, while the president has boasted about his tax avoidance and refuses to release his returns. How ironic, then, that, according to a recent news report, the Trump administration may revoke Scientology’s exemption.

Though Hubbard, ever the entrepreneur, founded Scientology as a for-profit entity in 1952, he quickly realized the pecuniary benefits of “the religion angle,” as he put it in a letter to one of his acolytes. After the federal government revoked the tax exemption it had awarded Scientology in 1956, Hubbard went to war. The church’s efforts culminated in Operation Snow White, a seven-year long campaign of dirty tricks that resulted in 11 senior church officials (including Hubbard’s wife) pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, burglary of government offices and theft of documents in 1978. Undeterred, the church later hired private investigators to snoop on IRS employees. Scientology even set up a front group, the National Coalition of IRS Whistle-Blowers, to discredit the agency.

The campaign worked. When Hubbard’s protégé, David Miscavige, strolled unannounced into IRS headquarters 13 years later and offered to drop the roughly 2,500 lawsuits individual Scientologists had filed against the agency in exchange for a tax exemption, the beleaguered IRS agreed.

There was no legal justification for this decision. Every single time Scientology had challenged its nonexempt status in court, it lost. Indeed, just a year before the IRS reversal, the U.S. Claims Court cited “the commercial character of much of Scientology,” its “virtually incomprehensible financial procedures” and “scripturally based hostility to taxation” as reasons for denying an exemption.

Today, America’s recognition of Scientology as a religion stands as an anomaly in the Western world, the result not of impartial jurisprudence but of harassment. Four years ago, France’s highest court upheld a fraud conviction against the church, ruling that, “Far from being a violation of freedom of religion, as this American organization contends, this decision lifts the veil on the illegal and highly detrimental practices.” One such practice: coercing followers into emptying their bank accounts for “auditing,” the process by which Scientologists release the disembodied remains of ancient space aliens by gripping metal canisters on a contraption called the “e-meter.”

Moving beyond this funny business, Germany’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation considers Scientology a threat to its “constitutional order” and monitors the organization alongside neo-Nazi and jihadist groups.

Those who claim Scientology is a bona fide religion argue that its beliefs concerning 75,000-year-old intergalactic space battles are irrelevant to its legal status. Mormonism, for example, is based on the teachings carved onto golden plates allegedly discovered in the backyard of its founder, Joseph Smith. It was long considered a cult (its adherents the targets of episodic violence) but is now increasingly accepted by mainstream society as just another branch of Christianity.

This argument misses two important distinctions between Scientology and other established faiths. It’s true that Scientology’s theology is no more objectively bizarre than many of the tales found in the Old and New Testaments. Yet traditional religious movements do not deny what’s contained in their scripture. Ask a Christian if he believes Jesus was resurrected, a Jew if Moses parted the Red Sea, or a Muslim if Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse, and you’re likely to get one of two responses. Some will affirm the validity of the stories. Others will say they are allegories.

But no priest, rabbi or imam would deny the very existence of the parables, which are, after all, right there on the page for anyone to read. Scientology, by contrast, has fought expensive legal battles to suppress defectors from publicizing what it claims is copyrighted material.

The other difference is that, unlike other organized religious communities that minister to individuals regardless of their ability to tithe, Scientology extracts ever-higher fees from its members on the “Bridge to Total Freedom.” As the head of France’s cult-monitoring unit stated, Scientology’s schemes lead one to “no longer act of his own free will, but become completely dependent on this organization that will exploit his weakness to the maximum, in order to attain a fortune.”

Finally, there is the church’s routine use of violence to intimidate would-be dissenters. Many former Scientologists have attested to physical abuse, forced labor and human entrapment at the hands of church leaders. No other tax-exempt religion maintains anything remotely resembling Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs, which, in the words of high-ranking Scientology defector Marty Rathbun, “operates mainly on Cold War era intelligence and propaganda techniques” to harass and defame heretics.

The church’s response to this rap sheet is always the same: Ex-Scientologists are “disgruntled” dissidents motivated by greed. But when so many people tell nearly identical horror stories of exploitation, manipulation and brutality, it warrants something more than harsh media scrutiny. It warrants government action.

Like big tobacco, Scientology is peddling a dangerous product hazardous to public health. It should be taxed as such.

James Kirchick is a correspondent for The Daily Beast and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.”

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