In an op-ed in the L.A. Times this weekend, “Going Clear” director Alex Gibney called on the IRS to revoke the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status. Citing the vitriolic reaction to the film’s release on the part of the Church, including harassment directed at himself, author Lawrence Wright, and the many prominent ex-Scientologists featured in the film, Gibney still says that he “[holds] out hope that this reaction may lead to the reform of an organization that has harassed its critics and, in my view, abused its tax-exempt status.”
Gibney says that in the wake of Wright’s book and the film, many reporters and ex-Scientologists seem to feel increasingly comfortable speaking out about the Church’s many abuses. The next step, which is one of the main issues raised by the film, is seeking a revocation of the tax-exempt status that has allowed the church to thrive.
As he writes:
To maintain the right to be tax-exempt, however, religions must fulfill certain requirements for charitable organizations. For example, they may not "serve the private interests of any individual" and/or "the organization's purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy…. Regarding "private interests," it seems clear that Scientology is ruled by only one man, David Miscavige. Further, powerful celebrities within the church, particularly Tom Cruise, receive private benefits through the exploitation of low-wage labor (clergy members belonging to the Sea Org make roughly 40 cents an hour) and other use of church assets for his personal gain.”
Referencing a series of church abuses, including “false imprisonment, human trafficking, wiretaps, assault, harassment and invasion of privacy,” as well as the church’s policy of making members "disconnect" from their families, Gibney notes that many of the church’s actions are “cruelly at odds with any reasonable definition of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Gibney suggests that a starting place for reform could involve a thorough criminal investigation of the church’s assets, or forcing Miscavige to testify under oath to congress about allegations of abuse. Revocation of tax-exempt status is hardly unprecedented, and Gibney cites the 1983 case where the charitable status of a religious college was revoked because it forbade interracial dating. As he puts it, “the 1st Amendment should not be a smokescreen to hide human rights abuses and possible criminal activities.”