Will the L. Ron Hubbard House Turn a Camelback Neighborhood Into a Scientology Recruitment Mecca?

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"Go to our church in Phoenix," suggests Scientologist Louis Ricketts. "You'll see a chapel and course rooms and meeting places. There's no room for those things at the L. Ron Hubbard House, which is there primarily so that our parishioners can see where Hubbard first discovered that man is a spiritual being. That's why it's significant."

The size of the Hubbard House is unimportant, according to "Leslie," one of several NABORS members who don't want to see their names in print. "They have big plans for that place," she says, sotto voce. "It is truly Mecca to them."

Not really, according to Ricketts. "Actually, our Mecca is in Clearwater, Florida," he says, sounding amused. Ricketts is the vice president of The Friends of L. Ron Hubbard, a California-based organization that manages the Phoenix property. "Our Mecca is massive, with 350,000 square feet of buildings and grounds."

Were the Scientologists to call the Hubbard House a church, all bets would be off, according to City Councilman Greg Stanton, in whose District 6 the Hubbard House resides. (As of February 4, Stanton is no longer a council member. He resigned to take a job with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, a move having nothing to do with this. His replacement will be named at a later date.)

"City government isn't here to tell people where or if they can establish a church," Stanton said in an interview late last year. "We're here to protect the interest of the community, and that includes its religious freedoms."

The Scientologists might have done better to keep their museum mum, operating it on the sly rather than going after fancy zoning and special permissions. It's something that's frowned upon, according to Katherine Coles of the City of Phoenix Planning Department, "but still something that gets done all the time."

Stanton grudgingly agrees. "We don't condone operating outside the law," he says. "But, yes, it's true that the city can't tell a private residence how many people are allowed to visit. We can certainly police parking if it's a problem, but we can't tell you how many house parties you're allowed to throw in a given week."

The Valhalla neighborhood deed restrictions, drafted in the '40s, zone specifically for single-family residences only and indicate that operating a museum without a use permit is a no-no. Brock claims she didn't know this at the time she opened the museum (a story some of her neighbors don't buy) and points out that she shut down operation as soon as it was brought to her attention.

But, Feltham says, it's only a matter of time before the Scientologists figure out a new way to get around the city's rules. Lately, there's been talk about plans to have the Hubbard House listed with the National Registry of Historic Homes, which would essentially override any attempts by angry neighbors or the city to police the home's activities.

"Church, museum, historic home, whatever you want to call it," Leslie says. "The Scientologists are here to recruit. They want to host seminars and market their religion. They prey on people who are having sociological and behavioral problems, get them in there innocently, and then go for the kill."

It's an unpretty opinion, but one that's repeated by pretty much all of the religion's detractors.

"Nothing Scientology does is benign in nature," according to Nina Lamb, a local Anonymous member. "They can have a pretty slick way of worming their way into your pocketbooks. You come for a tour and on display is an historical E-Meter, and then it's 'Who'd like to help me demonstrate? It's just a few questions!' Or 'Oh, it looks like you're stressed, can I recommend a few books for you?'"

That's the sort of game Russell Shaw was playing at the Hubbard House last year, Feltham insists. She says that the real estate mogul — best known for a TV ad campaign in which he proclaims, "I'll do whatever it takes to sell your home!" — held seminars at the Hubbard House in which he allegedly told attendees that the secret to his success was Scientology.

Shaw is amused by the accusation. "No one would come to my seminars if word got out that I was promoting any religion," Shaw says. "And as soon as the neighbors started making trouble for the L. Ron Hubbard House, I moved my seminars elsewhere."

The Scientologists will prevail in reopening their museum, Jacobson insists, either with the help of their deep-pockets legal team or because the city will cave in to the intimidation tactics he says the church uses to get what it wants.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela