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Scientology's influence grows in Washington

By DAVID DAHL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 1998


WASHINGTON -- After years of holding the U.S. government in contempt, the Church of Scientology is enlisting members of Congress, the U.S. State Department and even President Clinton to advance its agenda in foreign lands.

Prodded by the Scientologists' paid lobbyists and its cadre of sympathetic entertainers, several lawmakers and the Clinton administration have criticized the German government for allegedly discriminating against Scientology practitioners. They even got their argument against Germany to the floor of the House of Representatives last November.

On another front, the organization and members of Congress have complained to the U.S. Trade Representatives Office that the Swedish government failed to protect Scientology copyrights. The trade office, an arm of the administration, cited the copyright problem in deciding to include Sweden on its watch list of governments under review for possible trade agreement violations.

The lobbying push comes amid an ongoing criminal investigation into a suspicious death of one of its parishioners at Scientology's Clearwater headquarters -- the latest in a history of controversy involving the church. That history includes convictions of 11 Scientologists on charges stemming from break-ins of government offices in the 1970s.

Critics call Scientology a money-making cult, but the organization says it has reformed, and in the eyes of the IRS, it has. After a 40-year battle, the IRS dropped its tax dispute with Scientology and declared it a tax exempt religion in 1993.

Scientology has used lobbyists in Washington in the past, but in the years since the IRS ruling the organization has stepped up its lobbying effort. Records made public last week show that Religious Technology Center, a Scientology affiliate in Los Angeles, paid almost $725,000 to a Washington-based firm to lobby Congress in 1997 and 1996.

David H. Miller, the managing partner of Federal Legislative Associates, said members of Congress initially were skeptical about his client and its checkered past.

"What I've said to members is, "That's all bulls---. That's all extraneous. Let's talk about the facts,' " he recalled, though he concedes: "What they are trying to do is live down some of their past mistakes."

Miller, 50, is a former congressional aide who has been a lobbyist for 18 years. He and his firm represent clients such as the American Bankers Association and American Airlines. He is not, he said, a Scientologist.

"I think they have a very compelling story to tell. But they don't have the numbers, like Jews, Catholics and Mormons," Miller said, assessing the religious makeup of Congress.

While it's not uncommon for religious groups or other non-profit organizations to lobby Congress, the campaign by Scientology is another step in its effort to win legitimacy by currying favor with political leaders around the country.

For instance, assorted governors and mayors have issued proclamations favorable to Scientology. Actor John Travolta presented Scientology educational materials at a volunteerism summit attended by Clinton last year and said the president offered to help him in fighting discrimination in Germany.

In an interview with George magazine, Travolta, a Scientologist, recalled that the president told him: "I'd really love to help you with your issue over in Germany with Scientology."

That account led to speculation in Washington that Travolta went easy on the president by softening his portrayal of a Clinton-like southern governor in the recently released movie, Primary Colors. Travolta denies it.

The German dispute

Clinton, though, knew what Travolta cared about. Scientology's dispute with the German government is the group's highest priority in Washington these days. Church members complain the German government has fostered discrimination that has gone as far as placing Scientologists under surveillance

Miller, the lobbyist, said he has gradually tried to build a foundation of support that gives Scientologists' claims of discrimination credence in Washington. The biggest victory in that regard has come from the U.S. State Department, which criticized the German government for its treatment of Scientologists in its annual human-rights report.

The group also won support from some members of Congress, according to letters made available by the Church of Scientology. Then-U.S. Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif., complained about Scientology's treatment in a letter to the German Embassy in 1996. So did Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last year. Three members of the U.S. House complained to National Security Adviser Samuel Berger that the German government was placing members of Scientology under observation.

"Placing individuals under government surveillance because of their religious beliefs is a clear human-rights violation," wrote Reps. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.; Donald Payne, D-N.J.; and Robert Ney, R-Ohio.

Most of the lawmakers explain that they spoke up because they believe in freedom of religion.

Moorhead, who is now a lobbyist, said, "My own religion is quite contrary to theirs but that doesn't mean I don't support freedom of religion."

Ney, the Ohio Republican who co-sponsored a resolution addressing the issue, said religious freedom should exist despite Scientology's past problems. "I could take you religion by religion and name (you) controversy," Ney said. "I can tell you, (prominent Scientologists) Anne Archer, Chick Corea and John Travolta are not mad people."

Miller said his lobbying effort has been aided by Scientology's star power. Members such as actors Archer and Travolta and musicians Corea and Issac Hayes are willing to speak up for their beliefs. The entertainers came to Washington last year to lobby the administration and Congress on the German matter.

Travolta and two other Scientology advocates met Berger as part of the campaign. Miller acknowledges the national security adviser's interest was probably heightened with someone of Travolta's renown making the charges.

"I explained to them that we would continue to discuss with the German government our general view that human rights should not be violated," Berger told NBC's Meet the Press.

Meantime, Miller was working the halls of Congress to pass a non-binding resolution critical of the German government. He won support from leaders of House caucuses who advocate on behalf of arts, Hispanics and African Americans. His primary sponsor was Payne, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Initially, the resolution centered largely on Scientology's complaints. It was rewritten to attract broader support by adding complaints about discrimination toward members of other religions.

It noted that the State Department's annual report had criticized Germany for discriminating against Scientology. It said the House "deplores the actions and statements of the federal, state, local and party officials in Germany, which have fostered an atmosphere of intolerance toward certain minority religious groups." And it urged Clinton to "assert the concern of the United States government regarding German government discrimination against members of minority religious groups."

The resolution cleared the House International Relations Committee, but ran into trouble when it reached the House floor in early November.

Said Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb.: "I think it is important we not have Tom Cruise or John Travolta setting foreign policy in this country and think that is a driving factor behind this legislation."

Opponents entered letters into the congressional record showing that the German ambassador refuted Scientology's allegations. The critics also worried the House would be endangering an important relationship with an key European ally.

The House voted 318-101 to reject the resolution. Among local lawmakers, Rep. Michael Bilirakis, whose district includes Scientology's Clearwater headquarters, voted for the resolution, explaining later that he's always concerned when a group is singled out for persecution. Those voting against included Reps. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon and Jim Davis, D-Tampa.

Miller, the lobbyist, sees a victory in the defeat. Now, 100 members of Congress -- supporter Sonny Bono died since the vote -- are on record supporting his cause. He said, "The important thing was to make a point here."

Miller said he is in regular contact with the National Security Council and the State Department and is counting heads on Capitol Hill to see if his group could persuade Congress to pass the Scientology-sponsored resolution.

"We're going to come back at it again. Let me tell you, it's well in the works," he said.

Fighting over trademarks

A second front for Scientologists is their efforts to protect the church's writings and those of founder L. Ron Hubbard from copyright infringement. Here, too, the organization has won support from members of Congress and the Clinton administration

One aspect of the issue stretches all the way to Sweden. That country's government releases to the public any documents it receives, regardless of whether someone holds a copyright. As a result, Scientology says Hubbard's writings, which form part of the courses that cost practitioners thousands of dollars, have been made available on the Internet.

Miller, again representing the Scientologists' Religious Technology Center, told the U.S. Trade Representative that Sweden's release has cost the organization millions of dollars. And, as it did with the German dispute, the organization enlisted members of Congress.

Moorhead, while still in Congress, wrote the speaker of the Swedish Parliament to complain about the copyright problem in 1996, addressing him "as one member of a national legislature to another." He followed up with a second letter to the speaker and also obtained a favorable opinion on the matter from the Library of Congress copyright office.

Two other lawmakers, the late Rep. Bono, R-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., wrote to the Swedish government to complain about copyright violations last year. So did the U.S. ambassador to Sweden.

Last spring, the U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefksy included Sweden among 36 trading partners on the government's "watch list" for trade problems, including the copyright problem cited by Scientology. This year, Scientology is renewing its complaint, saying Sweden hasn't fulfilled promises to honor its copyrights.

Another Scientology affiliate is lobbying Congress on a different copyright matter. The company that oversees Hubbard's voluminous writings, Author Services Inc., hired a lobbyist to push for legislation that extends copyrights. That firm paid lobbyist Nicholas Wise $60,000 last year, records show.

Wise said Author Services is among a broad coalition of artists and writers pushing bills that would extend copyright protections to 70 years after someone dies. The current protection lasts 50 years after death, he said.
-- Times Staff writer Bill Adair and Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.


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