Longform

Picket Fencing

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What motivates Jacobsen to search through arcane records for such gems, he says, is that he objects to Scientology practices he says are harmful to its adherents. He also dislikes church policies that encourage lawsuits to harass critics, as well as efforts by the church to shut down its Internet detractors.

Scientologist attacks on Jacobsen, however, are more muddled. Signs carried by church members denouncing Jacobsen display odd messages that only make sense if you know something about Jacobsen's family and background. The church obviously knows something about that background, which explains the private investigators who showed up in Jacobsen's neighborhood and at his family's businesses in South Dakota.

As a result, Scientologists in both Phoenix and Florida blame Jacobsen for strange things. A recent issue of the National Enquirer contains a story about Scientology and two of its most famous believers, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. An inside photo portrays a demonstration in Florida attended by Jacobsen. If you look carefully, you can see part of a sign held by a Florida picketer with a slogan Scientologists have frequently aimed at Jacobsen: "Jeff Is a Porno King."

Jacobsen says the sign refers to two things. He works for his father at Single Scene, a tame weekly for lonely Phoenicians looking for love. Jacobsen's father also owns a chain of video stores in South Dakota that stocks adult videos along with the latest releases. Scientologists have labeled Jacobsen a pornographer for those connections.

Jacobsen's "religious bigotry" is never spelled out in leaflets or picket signs; nowhere do Scientologists identify themselves on their protest materials. On a church member's Web site, meanwhile, Jacobsen's character and family business are maligned: "Like a housewife who constantly harps about her neighbors, when you open Jeff's closet, all the dirty diapers and dishpans fall out."

Ironically, Jacobsen is one of the least vitriolic of Scientology's critics. Some of the church's detractors, particularly former Scientologists, push at the limits of free speech and good taste in their attacks on the church. It's obvious some of them enjoy provoking Scientologists, who have long endured reputations for being litigious and retaliatory.

But Jacobsen is nearly as reserved in his Internet joustings with the church as he is in real life. Something of a computer nerd, Jacobsen thinks of himself as a sort of cyberspace Gandhi, preferring conscientious debate to angry name-calling.

He says he's careful not to do anything on the Internet that would get him sued, and he doesn't support other critics who violate Scientology copyrights by posting secret church materials illegally.

Despite those precautions, Jacobsen has still attained Luciferlike stature in the minds of Scientologists.

But that all started when Jacobsen, computer geek, Internet hound, noticed a police department's electronic cry for help in solving the mysterious death of a Clearwater, Florida, woman.

Scientology describes itself as the "only major new religion to emerge in the 20th century."

Founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church's seminal text is Hubbard's 1950 book Dianetics. The self-help book was described at the time of its publication as a sort of poor-man's psychoanalysis and was promoted by Hubbard as an alternative to traditional mental-health care. Through a process somewhat analogous to psychotherapy that he called auditing, Hubbard claimed that the unhappy could improve their lives by erasing the effects of traumatic memories. Hubbard called these memories engrams and said they acted like scars on the mind; only after extensive auditing and the removal of all engrams, including those left over from past lives, could a person achieve a new state of inner freedom. Hubbard said such an engram-free human being, which had never appeared on Earth before, would be known as a clear.

Hubbard's clears would be capable of amazing feats. Impervious to sickness, clears would have clairvoyant powers, perfect recall, and would be able to leave their bodies. In the summer of 1950, Hubbard announced that he had produced the world's first clear, a young woman named Sonya Bianca. But at a demonstration in Los Angeles, Bianca's supposedly perfect recall was embarrassingly underwhelming. She couldn't, for example, remember the color of Hubbard's tie after Hubbard was asked by a spectator to turn around.

Nonetheless, by 1954, Hubbard had convinced enough readers of the power of Dianetics that he organized his followers in a formal religion he called Scientology. Today, 13 years after Hubbard's death, the church claims a worldwide membership of eight million. Critics say the real extent of the church is far smaller. The Mesa church claims a statewide membership of 1,000, and Reverend Durhman says that about 200 members attend church events.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega