All of them, those in power, and those who want the power, would pamper us, if we agreed to overlook their crookedness by wilfully restricting our activities.
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Fresh from U.S. victory, organization looks to Canada for charity ruling Scientology in Canada: First of two parts
The Church of Scientology, a 44-year-old faith based on the ideas of a dead science-fiction writer, hopes to build on a U.S. tax victory by getting recognition as a charity under Canadian law.
Among other things, it wants to issue tax receipts for donations from participants in its central rite, which features an electrical device akin to a lie detector. The device, called an E-meter, is said to detect mental trauma suffered by believers during countless lives in various galaxies over trillions of years. The service is called auditing. The suggested donation is $256 an hour. Healing may take hundreds of hours.
With offices from Victoria to Halifax, Scientology says it has 100,000 members in Canada, but it does not disclose its revenues. Janet Laveau, the ranking Scientologist in Canada and president of the Toronto branch, said she does not know how much money the organization takes in.
Backed by its Hollywood-based parent, it applied for charitable status in this country 3½ years ago and is still engaged in confidential negotiations, mostly on paper, with Revenue Canada.
The application was not made public until now. Government officials are bound by law not to discuss it.
If the application succeeds, Scientology may be eligible for benefits including charity casino licences and partial refunds of the goods and services tax. It will have moved toward acceptance as a mainstream faith and away from a reputation as a mind cult. Religious groups normally are entitled to charitable registration.
The process raises tricky questions in a free country: Is this a religion, or is it an expensive self-improvement program combined with a particularly zany concept of reincarnation? Who has the right to decide? Is there any basis on which the government can refuse to recognize what a substantial number of people call their religion?
The parent Scientology organization has been in the news in the past month partly because U.S. newspapers obtained secret details of a peace treaty it reached with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in 1993. The IRS had long considered it a profit-making business that enriched its late founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and others.
Reversing itself, the agency announced that Scientology operates for religious and charitable purposes and is tax-exempt. Scientology paid $12.5-million (U.S.) to settle pre-1993 tax disputes and halted a barrage of lawsuits against the IRS and its officials.
Scientology's Washington lawyer, Monique Yingling, said the Canadian application followed quickly because, in the organization's view, "there is such a close relationship between the Internal Revenue Service and Revenue Canada, and the Internal Revenue Service had done such an in-depth investigation of the Church of Scientology on a worldwide basis . . . and, as it turns out, the criteria for registration as a charity in Canada and tax exemption in the U.S. are substantially similar."
A lawyer hired by Scientology to press its application in Ottawa does not see it quite that way.
Arthur Drache, an authority on laws governing non-profit and charitable organizations, said he warned his clients that "what is going to fly in the States won't necessarily fly in Canada" because of differences in the systems.
Although Scientology endured a major IRS inquisition, the U.S. approval is generally easier to get than Canada's, he said.
"Hey, you've got [constitutional] separation of church and state in the United States, and no bureaucrat in his right mind wants to get mired in an issue which looks at somebody's conscience. You know, you can register all sorts of strange things in the States."
Canada's 15-year-old Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says the country "is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law," guarantees everyone's freedom of religion "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
As it happens, the Canadian Scientology organization already enjoys some of the benefits its parent recently won. It has operated for decades as a non-profit organization, a status that entails no special registration in this country. Non-profit groups simply declare that their purpose is not to make a profit. They may legally pay salaries to employees but not dividends to owners.
Scientology thus pays no Canadian income tax. Its ministers can perform marriages across much of the country. It won a 50-per-cent property-tax exemption two years ago on its Toronto headquarters, an eight-storey building on Yonge Street. The exemption saves it about $103,000 a year.
Unlike most churches, however, it cannot write charitable tax receipts for donations.
If it gets what it asks, the cost to the government could run to millions of dollars a year. Canadians used to be able to claim charitable donations equal to 20 per cent of their incomes for tax purposes. To spur private generosity at a time of public cutbacks, the figure was raised to 50 per cent for 1996 and to 75 per cent starting on this spring's tax returns. Big givers get about half of each donation back in tax savings.
As a charity, Scientology would have to disclose basic financial figures, something it has never done, and would be subject to federal rules on the handling of its money.
To the general public, Scientology is best known as a faith of major and minor celebrities, many of them brought in through Scientology Celebrity Centres in Hollywood and elsewhere. Actor John Travolta is one of its biggest catches.
Over the years, it has adopted a bland and vaguely Christian look. Its symbol is a stylized cross. Some ministers wear clerical collars. Recruits are exposed to the interstellar sweep of its teachings after careful initiation, although dissidents have begun to short-circuit the process by posting some of the gaudier material on the Internet.
The Nebraska-born Mr. Hubbard, who died in 1986, wrote dozens of science-fiction, fantasy, western and horror novels. He proposed a system of amateur psychotherapy called Dianetics in 1950 and turned it into a religion in 1954, gaining the benefit of a general reluctance to second-guess people's spiritual beliefs.
He proceeded to write shelves of material on subjects as diverse as galactic wars, robot warriors, church administration, staff productivity, public relations, private investigations and ways of dealing with critics, often labelled suppressive persons, a topic on which he showed signs of paranoia.
One of his most famous rules was that enemies of Scientology could be "deprived of property or injured by a Scientologist without discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." It was withdrawn in 1968 as susceptible to misinterpretation, Scientology now says.
In 1992, the Toronto branch was fined $250,000 for its role in espionage operations in the 1970s against the Ontario Attorney-General's Ministry, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A former Scientology official and two moles who rifled official files in search of material on the organization were fined a total of $9,000.
This criminal conviction of a church — a rarity in legal history — was upheld last year by the Ontario Court of Appeal. Scientology attributes past misdeeds to rogue agents of its Guardian's Office, a now-disbanded inner group created by Mr. Hubbard.
Despite its elaborate cosmology, Scientology is hobbled in its quest for recognition by an act of restraint. By its own account, its beliefs are based solely on the writings of Mr. Hubbard, who did not claim divine inspiration.
"The Church has no dogma concerning God," a Scientology handbook says. "Although Scientology affirms the existence of a Supreme Being, its practice does not include the worship of such."
This brings it up against a Revenue Canada guideline for assessing the claims of would-be religious charities. "There has to be an element of theistic worship," a government publication advises, "which means the worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense."
"Have they talked to any Buddhists lately?" snorted Mr. Drache, Scientology's Ottawa lawyer, noting that Buddhism, a recognized religion in Canada, focuses on a quest for spiritual perfection rather than worship of a supreme being.
Revenue Canada sees this as an exception to a general rule. Buddhism has influenced billions of people over 23 centuries. Scientology is a newly invented faith claiming a planetary total of eight million adherents, a number that cannot independently be verified.
Mr. Drache accuses government officials of trying to impose their own religious tastes. "I mean, what they're saying is: 'If it looks okay to us, we're going to register it, no matter what it is, and if it doesn't look okay to us, we're not going to register it.' The idea that they're operating under the rule of law is just nonsense."
The law itself is hard to pin down, partly because it dates from the reign of Elizabeth I.
Laird Hunter, an Edmonton lawyer in the same specialty as Mr. Drache, calls it one of the most arcane areas of legal practice. "The law in Canada regarding charities has several confusing aspects," he said, "one of which is that Revenue Canada administers a code under the Income Tax Act, but relies on a common-law test of charity."
This leads lawyers to study centuries of British court decisions interpreting the Law of Charitable Uses, 1601, also known as the Statute of Elizabeth. It is not much help, being content to list specific 17th-century causes including the maintenance of maimed soldiers, the repair of churches and the marriage of poor maids.
Even so, the courts have concluded that the advancement of religion is a charitable purpose. What remains in dispute is the definition of religion.
Why is the Scientology application taking so long? In a typical year, Revenue Canada gets about 5,000 applications for charitable registration and accepts about 3,000.
Mr. Drache, a former Finance Department official, is at least the second lawyer Scientology has hired to try to push its bid through the bureaucracy. "This is a real hot potato," he said, "and I wouldn't be surprised to see to-ing and fro-ing for an extended period of time. You've got to understand the process."
While the two sides dicker about whether Revenue Canada will accept the application, he said, they are marshalling their cases for battle in the Federal Court of Appeal if it is rejected. "There are no witnesses at the Federal Court of Appeal, there's only documentation. The entire Revenue Canada file would then become the evidence," which means that Revenue Canada is asking a lot of questions and Scientology is being very careful in its answers.
"I'm going by memory, but I think that there were something like 212 questions — factual questions, questions about doctrine, all sorts of things, ranging all over the lot. Basically Revenue said: 'Go away and answer these questions, and then we'll talk.' The Church of Scientology is that kind of hierarchy that they just don't say to somebody: 'Here, answer the questions and send it in.' The answers get vetted ad infinitum . . . and what that all translates into is a very long, drawn-out process."
Revenue Canada officials will not comment on the application. Theology aside, a range of things may be under under consideration, including the organization's financial relationship with its U.S. parent, its checkered legal history and its fierce public campaigns against the "criminal acts and human rights abuses" of psychiatry, a profession whose members compete with and sometimes criticize Scientology.
Even if the application is approved, it is not clear Scientology will be able to write tax receipts for donations collected when people receive its electrically assisted therapy. The government would have to decide whether these sums are general contributions (comparable to money in the collection plate) or fees paid for a service.
Carl Juneau, a lawyer in Revenue Canada's charities division, said there can be no receipt or tax deduction in the case of fees for service. "The issue came up a couple of years ago as to whether a church could deliver a receipt for a mass said on behalf of a particular deceased person, and the answer is no, because it's a fee for a service rendered."
Scientologists would not be happy with such an answer, which could lead to another court battle. In the United States, they have the right to issue tax receipts for the auditing procedure. Mr. Drache said he has no opinion on whether they are entitled to do so under Canadian law.
Ms. Laveau, the Toronto Scientology leader, said money is not the main issue. "What the church gains out of acceptance of our charitable application is basically equal treatment. There is no financial gain [for the church]. It's a gain for our members."
Professional skeptic Mike Kropveld, who heads a non-denominational group called InfoCult in Montreal, said it would also be a propaganda coup.
"One of the things I think they would do with this is use it internationally, tell the world that after years of problems, now the government of Canada has taken an official position of recognizing Scientology."
NEXT: Battles in cyberspace