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Charging a reporter's enrollment in one of its courses caused members "extreme mental anguish, suffering and humiliation," the Tampa mission of the Church of Scientology sued the Clearwater Sun and a Sun employe Wednesday for $250,000.
Bruce Harrell, direector of the mission, charged that Sun Assistant City Editor Tom Coat enrolled in the Tampa mission for the purpose of writing articles about the controversial group that has purchased the former Fort Harrison hotel.
"Coat's unwarranted and surreptitious intrusion and invasion of our private training areas was in direct contravention of our rights guaranteed by the constitution of the United States of America and the State of Florida and we have acted accordingly," Harrell said in a prepared statement he read at a press conference at the Fort Harrison.
According to the suit, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, the Church of Scientology has maintained a policy "of excluding anyone from participation in the seminars who would attend for any ulterior motive or purpose other than solely for their own religious and spiritual betterment.
Coat paid membership dues and joined the organization on March 2. After Scientology officials discovered and announced he was a newspaper employe, his money was returned and he was expelled from the mission.
Harrell charged the Sun with acting "covertly behind the scene, hidden, secret, to manufacture a series of stories, 12 of them on the Church of Scientology."
Harrell labeled the special report on Scientology published by the Sun this week as a "series of muckraking yellow journalistic articles, viciously attacking the Church of Scientology and its tenets."
However, Coat did not contribute to the information-gathering or writing of this week's special report, which looks at Scientology through the organization's own documents and actions and views of former Scientologists.
The suit against the Sun and Coat did not specify laws or constitutional provisions that were allegedly violated.
Instead, the suit broached the general question of violation of freedom of religion and the right to privacy.
The Scientologists charged that Coat's attendance and subsequent expulsion from the Tampa Scientology courses had harmed the mission's "reputation for confidentiality in its seminars, thereby adversely affecting the recruiting of members, students and solicitation of donations."
In a second count, the suit also contends Coat is guilty of trespassing on Scientology property by attending the classes.
Scientology spokesmen Fred Ulan and Frederick Rock each declined to comment about the suit following the brief press conference.
The Sun management also declined to discuss the suit, Managing Editor Ron Stuart said the Sun would "have its say at the proper time" and pointed out that "not one word about Coat's experiences has been published. It could be the report will be highly favorable to the Scientologists."
In criticizing the Sun for allegedly slanted reporting, Ulan and Rock seemed to confirm some of the information in the recent Sun special reports.
While denying the Fort Harrison, a 50-year-old city landmark, had become the world headquarters for Scientology, Rock acknowledged that some Scientology literature describes Flag—now based at the Fort Harrison—as the international headquarters.
And Ulan reluctantly acknowledged that the Fort Harrison was one of three Scientology facilities in the world where a permanent residence is maintained for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Expanding on the use of the Fort Harrison, Rock announced that the building was also being used for low-level Scientology training, claiming that did not conflict with earlier explanations that the facilty would be used only for advanced courses.
According to Rock, even the rudimentary Scientology communications program is considered "advanced" training. The closest center to Clearwater for the introductory course is the Tampa mission, but courses immediately above that level are available in the Clearwater Scientology facility, he said.
In response to another question during the short question-and-answer period after the press conference. Rock said he personally would like to see a Scientologist on the city commission.
Rock said the Church of Scientology was apolitical, and noted he would not actively solicit the candidacy of a Scientologist. But he added he would encourage anyone with aspirations to run.