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A French court last Tuesday convicted the Church of Scientology and six of its leaders of organized fraud. The church intends to appeal, labeling the judgment a “modern inquisition” and a threat to freedom of religion in France. A former Scientology official testified against the church, calling it “a church built on lies.” Although the conviction resulted in a hefty fine, the judgment does not ban the church from operating in France as prosecutors had hoped. Apparently, an “accidental” change in French law made banning fraudulent organizations impossible. Although the law was later amended, it is unclear whether the court could retroactively apply the changes to the fraud convictions. It’s not the first time Scientology has come under legal attack in Europe. In 2007, a Belgian prosecutor recommended bringing fraud and extortion charges against the church, and the German government considers the church “a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people.”
The French court based its conviction on the church’s use of an “E-meter” in recruiting new members. The church contends that the device can measure “spiritual duress” in humans. The court found that the church used results from the medically and scientifically unproven device to sell products and services to new recruits to rid themselves of the “body thetans” causing the duress, resulting in fraud on the plaintiffs.
Is this conviction the end of Scientology as we know it? Probably not. The United States offers constitutional protection to Scientology as no other country does. Meanwhile, France recognizes Scientology as a sect, not a religion, and the church does not benefit from tax-exempt status in France as it does in the United States. Although critics consider the church a brainwashing, moneymaking cult, Scientology seems to be o n solid ground as a recognized religion in the United States. In 1999, the State Department went as far as issuing a human rights report stating that the church was unfairly discriminated against in France and Germany. It seems that in the United States, the departure of well-known movie director Paul Haggis from the religion will have a bigger impact than France’s legal declaration.
– Kate Kliebert
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