Pray Tell: What Women Should Know About Scientology

These days, Scientology is everywhere – three books are out this month alone, including Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, which has been featured everywhere from CNN to the New York Times Book Review. Yesterday, several ex-members filed a lawsuit against the Church, saying that Scientology kept asking them for more and more money for shadowy projects which were never completed, then had them blacklisted for asking questions about where the money went.

I believe in freedom of religion. But as a longtime religion reporter, I know enough about Scientology to think that the Church is dangerous and harmful. In particular, it’s terrible for the women who join it. It may be funny to watch the Xenu clip from South Park, but many of the labor violations and harsh punishments against women in the Church should give you a sense of why this religion isn’t amusing – it’s scary.

1. They have forced or coerced women to get abortions.

Members of Scientology’s Sea Org – the Church’s most loyal and devoted members, who sign billion year contracts (yes, that’s billion) – are discouraged from having children, lest that distract them from their work responsibilities. Several ex-members have spoken out saying that they were pressured to get abortions, even if they didn’t want to. One, Laura DeCrescenzo, alleged that she was forced to get an abortion when she was 17. Another ex-member, Astra Woodcraft, deliberately got pregnant so that she would be able to leave the Sea Org. She has since founded a support forum for children who were raised in Scientology, called Ex-Scientology Kids. Another cofounder, Jenna Miscavige Hill, is the niece of the Church’s head, David Miscavige, and has a memoir coming out next month in which she details how and why she escaped the group.

2. They have forced couples to divorce each other.

As a Sea Org member, you can be assigned anywhere in the world where the Church needs you. In many cases, that means that married couples have been split up for years at a time. Some couples have been ordered to divorce each other – for example, if one half of a couple has security clearance and the other one does not, so they won’t be able to work together anymore, or if one wants to leave the Church and is declared a “suppressive person” (Scientologist-speak for a bad guy who wants to hurt the Church). Actress Carmen Llewellyn, who used to be married to actor Jason Lee, says that they were forced to discuss their marital problems with a Scientology counselor, and that they eventually split because she had second thoughts about the religion. Two high-profile former members, Claire and Marc Headley, escaped the Church together rather than follow orders to divorce.

3. They have put pregnant women in their Rehabilitation Project Force, which is basically jail.

Former Sea Org member Nancy Many published her memoir, My Billion Year Contract, in 2009. (This video is a section of a recent dramatization of her book that appeared on a Canadian TV network.) Among her shocking revelations was the one that she had been sentenced to the Church’s Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) while she was pregnant. The RPF is a form of Scientology jail, and people are given open-ended sentences. While in the RPF, they wear boiler suits, perform manual labor, and are not permitted contact with friends and relatives. While Nancy was on the RPF, she had to sleep in a garage and inhaled car fumes. Her son was born with respiratory problems.

Scientology is certainly not the only religion whose treatment of women has been called into question. The Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women, and several orthodox faiths have discouraged women and girls from getting an education. But what Scientology does to some of the women – and men – who are its most loyal and faithful members can only be described as wrong. Do you know what the highest term of esteem is for a female Scientology executive? Sir.

Lilit Marcus blogs at Faith Goes Pop