Why Leah Remini's defection from the Church of Scientology matters

The "King of Queens" actress is Scientology's latest apostate -- and had been an approachable defender of the faith

Published July 12, 2013 6:44PM (EDT)

Leah Remini    (AP/Dan Steinberg)
Leah Remini (AP/Dan Steinberg)

Leah Remini, the onetime star of "The King of Queens" and of "The Talk," has confirmed reports that she's defected from the Church of Scientology -- a rare celebrity apostate and the most notable one since "Crash" director Paul Haggis's much-discussed departure.

While Remini's star has faded somewhat in recent years -- she was fired from "The Talk" in 2011, and the New York Post, in breaking the story, didn't even use Remini's name in its front-page headline -- her departure is yet another significant blow to the church's public image. For all that Remini's public profile has dimmed somewhat, she's still a likable star of a sitcom that aired for nine years and is on in syndication nightly in many markets; she was public about her Scientology and, in particular, her friendship with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the now-over first couple of Scientology. Remini, whose sitcom was still airing when Cruise and Holmes wed, spoke publicly about the much-speculated-upon couple and helped to humanize them, dishing about baby Suri during the long period during which Cruise and Holmes kept her hidden and, later, explaining away Cruise and Holmes's reliance on L. Ron Hubbard's formula to feed toddler Suri.

Compare Remini's friendly, amiable Scientology to Jenna Elfman's aggressive shouting at passersby or Kirstie Alley's criticizing psychiatric medication or the rumors swirling around Tom Cruise and John Travolta. She was one of the celebrity Scientologists it was okay to like, much as Paul Haggis was safe to honor with Academy Awards because he kept his faith fairly low-key. Scientologists live their faith in public by their very nature, but Remini's framing of Scientology in interviews as a way to hang out with Tom and Katie seemed, if not relatable, then inoffensive.

In losing Remini, Scientology isn't necessarily losing a valuable evangelist -- in her time on "The Talk," Remini had countless opportunities daily to share details of just how much Scientology helps her, but chatted instead about life as a modern mom. But it lost a great mitigator of controversy. Responding to criticism of the church, Remini said in 2001: "I can see how people might trip out about it. But I've been doing it for so long." Rather than the sort of preaching that has made Americans reflexively distrustful of celebrity Scientologists, Remini, when she addressed her faith, was plainspoken and not pushy. She may not have won over converts to the cause, but she helped make other Scientologists' weirdnesses seem like peccadilloes, not reflective of the church as a whole. If there was room for someone as relatively normal as Leah Remini within Scientology, it couldn't be that bad!

Remini's departure from the church isn't a random change of heart; reports, not specifically confirmed by Remini, indicate that she's been subject to interrogations for years after remarking upon the absence of church leader David Miscavige's wife at Cruise's wedding to Holmes. The event, which seemed more normal and down-to-earth for the presence of mere TV actress Remini, will now be recast (rightly or wrongly!) in the public imagination as yet another weird and cultish Scientology ritual. For their sake, the church, under fire this year especially after the publication of Lawrence Wright's exposé, may find themselves wishing there were some star who could come forward and say something inoffensive but defensive, leaving aside pharmaceuticals and other Scientologist preoccupations -- something like, "If somebody is going to get turned off about something because of what they read or heard, then that person's not smart enough to even enter a church." The person who said that was turned off, eventually, herself, leaving a church comprised of its most vociferous defenders.

By Daniel D'Addario

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John Travolta Leah Remini Scientology Tom Cruise