My Church, Your Cult

            The front page of today's Boston Herald contains a startling bit of religious bigotry that surely would not have made it past the editors had it been referring to a church other than Scientology: “Dollars For ‘Cult’ Scholars,” screamed the headline. “Hub charity gives $20G to proposed Scientology-linked school.” 

            What happened was that the “Cornerstone for Success Academy,” described in Dave Wedge’s sensationalistic story as “a proposed taxpayer-funded pilot school linked to an arm of the controversial Church of Scientology,” was given a modest grant by the Boston Foundation, a highly-reputed Hub private charity. Richard Stutman, President of the Boston Teachers Union – which is opposed to pilot schools generally because they outshine the public schools that are hobbled by the infamously dysfunctional BTU contract – obliged by charging that “The Boston Foundation obviously didn’t pay careful attention to  who [sic] they gave the planning grants to [sic].”

            Naturally, the educational authorities will investigate any applicant that wants to start a charter school. Religiously-linked groups are not excludable per se, as long as the school will be operated along secular, not religious, lines. This would be so regardless of whether it’s a Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Scientology, Mormon or any other group to which a proposed pilot school might  be linked. And indeed a spokeswoman for Applied Scholastics, sponsor of the school, recognized this when she told the Herald that “our organization is a secular organization” and that there is no “religious material in our programs.”

But what is disturbing about the Herald’s report is the treatment of Scientology as a “cult.” Consider the reaction if the paper had referred in this derogatory manner to, for example, the Mormon Church to which our former governor – and Presidential primary candidate – Mitt Romney belongs. And, of course, there’s no reason why an even larger religious denomination could not be referred to as a cult by those who find its practices mystifying or unpleasant. To a non-member or a non-believer, any church has practices and beliefs that could be described as cultish. (Disclosure: Some years ago I represented the Church of Scientology of Boston in defending, on First Amendment religious liberty grounds, against lawsuits seeking money damages for “religious fraud.”) The notion that one’s own belief is the only true belief, and that all others are fools, apostates, or cultists, is a very dangerous one, ending, historically, in the cemetery. That such intolerance graces the front page of one of Boston’s daily newspapers is disturbing.


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