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

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"The city is probably scared," Jacobson says. "Or at least they should be." He's referring to the numerous controversies and conflicts that are — next to Tom Cruise's allegiance — all that most laypeople know about the religion. There's Operation Snow White, a '70s project reportedly designed to purge unfavorable public records and published criticisms of Hubbard and Scientology. And there are the alleged attempts to legally force search engines like Yahoo and Google to censor Web pages that disparage the church. And, perhaps most infamously, there's the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died while in the care of the church.

Scientology's crummy reputation is by no means news; things began going awry from the beginning, back when the religion was still headquartered in Phoenix. In May 1955, a woman named Estrid Anderson Humphrey sued the Church of Scientology for damages to her Paradise Valley home. The lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court, alleged that a house Humphrey leased to the church was smashed up by what an Arizona Republic story called "one or more persons with assertedly deranged minds" who were placed there "for care and treatment."

Jacobson refers to this as among the first of Hubbard's many "experiments with crazy people," in which Hubbard would allegedly isolate mentally ill people in a room or small house while treating their psychosis with Scientology's "present time awareness" techniques. They're still using these methods today, according to Jacobson says.

Scientology's local losing streak continued later the same year when Edd Clark, a Phoenix-based practitioner of the new religion, was jailed after practicing medicine without a license. Clark, who was nearly blind, was busted for accepting money from patients he treated with psychological techniques he'd recently learned at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Seattle. These early lawsuits would set the stage for the church's long, litigious future, which would include dozens of court cases covering everything from coercion to wrongful death — nearly all of them either settled out of court or won by Hubbard and company.

Feltham agrees with Jacobson that the city is running scared from the Church of Scientology. She thinks Stanton could have done more than moderate the discussions between NABORS and the Scientologists, but that he and others in local government are afraid of Scientology's in-house legal team and history of intimidation.

"Any government agency that isn't concerned about having Scientologists doing business in their community isn't paying attention," Jacobson says. "Governments large and small have become wary of dealing with Scientology."

Is local government frightened of the big, bad Scientologists? "I don't know anything about that" is all Stanton will say on the subject. "At the city level, we have to be careful not to pick one religion over another. My desire was to strike a reasonable balance between a religiously important house and a neighborhood that doesn't want a business on one of its streets."

"We're a new religion, and all new things get attacked," says Ricketts in his church's defense. "Galileo said the Earth was round, and look what happened to him. We don't sell books about Scientology at the house. We don't make any money there. We're not forcing anyone to believe anything. I think maybe the neighbors have been given misinformation about Scientology, and it's frightened them."

In fact, many of Brock's neighbors just seem bored by the Hubbard House tug-of-war. "I don't know my neighbors, and I'm not interested in taking sides," says Irene Hunter, who's quick to point out that she's not a Scientologist. "But I believe in freedom of choice, and that we have certain rights because we're a free country. I've never seen cars parked over there. And all my neighbors have big parties, so I don't know what the problem is. This whole thing is getting out of hand."

It's also gotten pretty nasty. Although her neighbors chum with Marlyse Brock, taking yoga classes with her and chatting her up at neighborhood association meetings, some of them have taken to calling her "Brunhilda" behind her back.

Privately, Brock may believe she's a 75 million-year-old extraterrestrial; she may secretly hope that all people will one day convert to Scientology. Publicly, she appears more interested in passing out baked goods. "Marlyse showed up with a cake" is a frequent (if rather unusual) complaint from neighbors, because Brock tends to bring fresh-baked peace offerings from Hubbard's oven after each new attack on his former home.

Brock isn't just trying to make peace, according to some of her neighbors, who insist she's up to no good. One complains that Brock called her on her unlisted mobile number, and that she keeps sending Christmas cards each year. Another says, in all sincerity, that she was afraid to eat the cake Brock brought to her. Still another swears she's afraid to answer her door, for fear that it will be Brock "back with more propaganda." (Pressed to describe the propaganda, this neighbor stutters, "Well, she didn't have any printed material. She had one of her cakes. But she's a pain in the ass!")

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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