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Originally published Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 10:06 PM

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Scientology church finds new home in Queen Anne neighborhood

For the Rev. Ann Pearce, the opening last month of the Church of Scientology Washington State's new headquarters in the Queen Anne neighborhood has been a long time coming.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For the Rev. Ann Pearce, the opening last month of the Church of Scientology Washington State's new headquarters in the Queen Anne neighborhood has been a long time coming.

The local church, organized in 1956, is one of the oldest Scientology churches in the world. Over the years, parishioners have met in Belltown, downtown and in an 8,500-square-foot building on Aurora Avenue North.

But in recent years, they found "the facility just wouldn't hold us," Pearce said.

Seven years ago, they bought the approximately 34,000-square-foot building at 300 W. Harrison St. and, over time, raised approximately $14 million to renovate the building, along with opening a smaller Life Improvement Center in downtown Seattle.

"Compared to what we've been in, it's huge," Pearce said. "We finally have room to offer all our services."

In addition to chairs set up in rows for weekly services, there are high-tech video displays showing everything from the life of founder L. Ron Hubbard (who attended Queen Anne High School and spent many years in the Northwest), to videos on "eradicating psychiatric abuse" and touting the organization's anti-drug and human-rights efforts.

The expansion of Scientology's presence in Seattle is part of a building push worldwide. Last year, the church opened new or renovated buildings in cities including Rome; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Nashville; and Malmo, Sweden. About a dozen new churches have opened or are scheduled for completion this year.

Scientology representatives say the building campaign is in response to explosive growth — though others have questioned whether the church in the U.S. is indeed growing. Church leaders say their increased numbers are because people are searching for something, and/or are curious about the religion, which has garnered much publicity — and controversy — in recent years.

Actor Tom Cruise's rant against psychiatry several years ago highlighted the religion's opposition to much of that medical field. The New York Times and St. Petersburg Times have run stories reporting some who've left Scientology have accused church leader David Miscavige of physically attacking staff members. The St. Petersburg Times recently reported that a dozen women said the culture of Scientology's religious order, the Sea Organization, pushed them or women they knew to have abortions.

Church leaders have denied those accusations.

Bob Adams, a spokesman with the Church of Scientology International, says the articles were based on lies by "apostates" who want to see the church fail.

"The history of all new religions is they go through a time of trial where the public is skeptical," Adams said.

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Besides, he said, the attention may actually draw in people. "It's a new religion. Whatever publicity we get, people are curious."

The grand opening — which was not open to the media — a little more than a week ago of the Queen Anne headquarters drew Miscavige, along with several prominent Washingtonians, including state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders and state Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline.

Sanders said he was invited because several decades ago, as a lawyer, he represented a woman who was referred to him by Scientologists. The woman was about to be involuntarily committed for mental-health reasons. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, where Sanders won his argument that the state constitution required a court hearing before someone could be involuntarily summoned to a hospital for a mental exam.

Others honored the local church for its history of community service in areas like disaster response, park cleanups and hunger relief.

"Their level of service to the community is very high," said Dave Peterson, president of the Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce.

Church leaders have been touting the renovation, inviting members of the media on tours. On the first floor of the Queen Anne headquarters, the public can browse through videos and books. People can ask for guided tours of the other floors, where there are, among other things, saunas and treadmills used for "purification rundowns" (in which toxins are sweated out), and an office set up in honor of Hubbard, who died in 1986. (Every Scientology church has such an office, a spokeswoman said.)

Hubbard's father was a Naval officer stationed at Bremerton. Hubbard, who was a pulp- and science-fiction author, had a writer's retreat in Port Orchard, and it was there that he wrote the book "Excalibur," which is regarded as the philosophic foundation of Scientology, according to the church.

There are also rooms for "auditing" sessions — a kind of counseling, where an auditor asks a person questions about his or her life while the person holds on to the silver cylinders of an "e-meter" — which the church says can indicate when a person is thinking about particularly stressful subjects.

Scientologists believe that people are, first and foremost, immortal spiritual beings — or "thetans" — and that thetans can be cleared of negative energy through auditing. People pay for auditing sessions and study courses, which can range from free online to $25, to up to thousands of dollars each.

Angie Rodriguez, a 21-year-old sales director in Seattle, said Scientology has given her tools that enable her to see her life and relationships more clearly.

What's unclear is the exact number of Scientologists.

The church counts as members anyone who's had some significant contact with the church, either by undertaking auditing sessions or study courses.

One study — the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey — found that the number of Scientologists in the U.S. fell from 55,000 in 2001 to 25,000 in 2008.

Sociologist Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, one of study's principal researchers, said the sample size of Scientologists used was too small to give a reliable count of members. Still, he said, the data "strongly suggests that there has been no recent vast increase and that the number of Scientologists (in the U.S.) is in the tens of thousands."

Adams, the Church of Scientology International spokesman, estimates there are millions of Scientologists worldwide, though he couldn't be more specific on the number, and about a million in the U.S.

He said total assets and property holdings of the Church of Scientology internationally have doubled since 2004.

About 1,600 people attended the grand opening of the Queen Anne headquarters, the church said, though not all were members and some were from out of state.

The local contingent says it's proud of what it's accomplished. It's a dedicated group, said Pearce. Plus, "there's such a history of our founder in this area."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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