Scientology's Many Ties to South Florida

The Church of Scientology is a political force.
The Church of Scientology is a political force. Photo by evdropkick / Flickr
Scientology is more than just Tom Cruise and cult jokes, believe it or not. It's a political force. The Church of Scientology, which has been around for 50-odd years, recently claimed Miami as one of its de facto headquarters and counts many Florida politicians among its allies. The group, which boasts a global presence, has quietly put down roots and built partnerships across South Florida and beyond, culminating with an expected Super Bowl event appearance. Drug-Free World of South Florida, an arm of the Church of Scientology, got the green light to hand out fliers outside the Super Bowl Live event in Bayfront Park. 

Innocuous as passing out pamphlets might be, the religion's history is far stranger and more concerning. The church is accused of collecting information on its critics and members alike, as well as subjecting workers to a form of indentured servitude. And, yes, it also attracts Hollywood A-listers like raccoons to a dumpster.
Scientology's South Florida coming-out party happened in 2017 when the group opened a megacenter near Coconut Grove. The building, which the group purchased for $7 million and renovated, held its own opening ceremony and festivities. Onstage was none other than former Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. During his legislative tenure, Diaz-Balart earned himself a reputation as a staunch opponent of human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Cuban government. However, Diaz-Balart's concerns over human rights were nowhere to be found as he happily overlooked extensive reports of routine beatings, required isolation from family, and forced divorces carried out within Scientology. (The church has contested these allegations.) 
Another politician in attendance at the opening ceremony? Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. Unlike Diaz-Balart, Regalado was willing to face the media over his appearance at the megachurch. In truth, silence might've been more comforting than his explanation. Regalado retreated behind equations, comparing the controversies surrounding Scientology to those involving Catholic priests abusing children. "I'm a practicing Catholic, and I don't leave because of some abusive priests," Regalado said. "They are a legitimate religion."
The Church of Scientology turned to a Miami-Dade prison for new recruits. Deeming it an inmate "rehabilitation" program, Scientology launched a program based on the teachings of sci-fi writer and founder L. Ron Hubbard inside the Everglades Correctional Institution in southwest Miami-Dade. The program aimed to create "a world without crime" by instructing inmates on morality, ethics, and self-respect. Admirable as that may be, the foundation of the church's philosophy is far more concerning. The church — which is opposed to mental health treatment, therapy, and psychiatry — claims negative spirits called "thetans" are the source of all negative emotions in humans. According to the church, thetans can be removed through a process called "auditing" — confessing all misgivings and worries to a church member. What might not get mentioned in a Scientologist's elevator pitch, however, is that the church records and stores all confessions and stands accused of using those materials against people who attempt to leave or critique the church. 
Because no South Florida Scientology list would be complete without a post-hurricane pizza party hosted by an elected official. Hurricane Irma may not have discriminated in its destruction and devastation, but the recovery process following the storm was far from egalitarian. While her constituents were reeling from the hurricane, former North Miami state Sen. Daphne Cambell was busy trying to use her office to influence Florida Power & Light to restore her power before others. Why the desperate need to skip the line? Campbell had planned a post-Irma "relaxation" party, featuring loads of pizza and multiple Scientologists. The Scientologists were there to show off massaging techniques called "assists" that the church uses to "heal spiritual wounds" and, in a pinch, bring the newly dead back to life. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.