France Could Ban Scientology

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on June 3, 2009

Germany tried to do it, but withdrew its efforts. Several Australian states did it, but the church later gained tax-exempt status. Now, France is looking to ban Scientology.

It all depends on the outcome of a trial against the French branch of this religion, which is being accused of organized fraud and illegally prescribing drugs. The trial, which has attracted international attention and raised questions about freedom of religion in the European nation, started last week in a Paris courtroom, and will continue into the middle of June.

On trial are six French Scientology leaders as well as the church itself and the bookstore it runs. Leaders face up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $13 million while the church and bookstore could be forced to pay $6.9 million. Scientology could be banned in France.

The charges stem from the prosecution’s contention that the church is “first and foremost a commercial business” which exhibits “a real obsession for financial remuneration” from its followers.

According to Time Magazine online, French magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin concluded in his nine-year investigation of the church that it uses bookstores and celebrity centers to lure gullible converts “with the goal of seizing their fortune by exerting a psychological hold.”

Two women are at the center of the case: Aude-Claire Malton is accusing the church of charging her $27,000 for two months of “spiritual auditing,” a form of religious counseling. She was also allegedly given massive doses of vitamins to lure her into “extreme fatigue” and “submission.” The second woman says she was fired by her Scientologist boss after she refused to continue expensive auditing sessions.

Two other plaintiffs dropped out of the case after they settled out of court.

The church, which has 8 million adherents worldwide, is, of course, denying all charges and says that the two women always had the choice to leave the counseling services and the organization itself.

Church officials believe that the case is the latest in a pattern of harassment by French officials. In 1996, they say, the government placed their religion on a list of dangerous cults. That list also included everybody’s favorite airport entertainment, the Hare Krishnas, and everybody’s favorite Sunday door knockers, the Jehova’s Witnesses.

Scientologists also believe the government is interfering with their freedom of religion.

I don’t buy that. From what I’ve read, the case was not filed against the church or its members for their religious beliefs, but for what prosecutors allege is a practice of manipulating individuals to get their money. It’s not the first time that the religion has been accused of that.

While I am a strong supporter of freedom of religion (no matter how crazy its ideas), I also think that religious institutions, like all other institutions, should be held accountable for their actions.

Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to hurt and exploit people.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published in June by City Lights Books. His website: www.avicollimecca.com

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