Off-campus protest against Scientology draws students

Sam Guzik
Scott Bressler

A number of Washington University students, together with a group calling itself “Anonymous,” staged a protest outside the University City Church of Scientology yesterday.

The group, which is based online and attracted the attendees through a message board, drew more than 50 people to criticize the religion’s membership recruitment and retention practices, which demonstrators claimed were inhumane.

“[This protest] is not against the beliefs of the Church,” said the moderator of the forum that organized the protest. “It’s their methods and tactics in terms of getting and keeping members that we have a problem with.”

The protest began around 10 a.m., and throughout the day the demonstrators stood across the street from the church and marched through the Delmar Loop.

“It’s really like dogs nipping at our heels,” said Ellen Maher-Forney, a spokesperson for the St. Louis Church of Scientology. “It really doesn’t bother our parishioners.”

Although many of the protestors wore masks to prevent themselves from being identified by the Church of Scientology, several identified themselves as University students.

“I heard from one of my friends all the terrible things that the Church of Scientology has done, and I decided to come out to support the protest,” said junior Aarthi Arunachalam.

Arunachalam acknowledged that most of her information was secondhand, but mentioned her support for the cause and her desire to do more research after the protest.

Several other demonstrators preferred not to be identified by name.

“Some people come from 10 minutes away, some from as far away as Springfield,” said Gene Marcun, a protestor and member of the community.

According to Marcun, the demonstrators had not met before the event began and did not know each other’s identity.

The St. Louis protest came as part of a series of worldwide demonstrations by the Anonymous organization. The immediate cause for the demonstration was the anniversary of the death of Lisa McPherson, who allegedly died as a result of the Scientologist beliefs toward medicine.

McPherson was a member of the Church of Scientology who died of a pulmonary embolism after a car crash in Clearwater, Florida. She died after receiving treatment from a Scientologist doctor. All criminal charges against the Florida Church of Scientology have been dropped.

According to Maher-Forney, McPherson was taken to a Scientologist doctor because others had wanted to place her in a psychiatric ward and because there was nothing that could be done to treat the embolism.

“Anonymous is perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry,” said Maher-Forney, in a prepared statement. “It is Anonymous that has repeatedly attempted to suppress free speech through illegal assaults on Church Web sites so as to prevent Internet users from obtaining information from the Church.”

In the past, the Anonymous organization has been accused of cyber-terrorism because of a process called “distributed denials of service” that floods a Web site with traffic and overwhelms the server.

“Anonymous started out at a certain Web site that is known for what could be called cyber-terrorism tactics,” said the moderator and organizer. “We’ve evolved from that, though, and really have changed.”

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