Big move for Scientologists in Motown

detroitThe headline in Saturday's Detroit News brought the news that the "controversial" church of Scientology had paid $3.5 million for a prominent downtown building for office and outreach program use. The larger story is that Scientologists in Michigan are moving their headquarters and expanding to meet a greater demand and need for the church's services. What I found interesting is how the newspaper described Scientologists:

The Los Angeles-based church, which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta as members, will relocate most of its operations from Farmington Hills. The church will have a staff of 125 and about 300 members initially, Carmichael said.

The development comes as other projects within the central business district have fallen through, such as condominiums at 1001 Woodward and The Griswold next door to the Westin Book-Cadillac. Because the church will own the building, however, the city won't reap property taxes from it. The site was previously owned by the financial services firm Raymond James & Associates. The firm paid $9,773 in taxes in 2006. .

The expansion is a response to increased demand and to help meet the needs of area church members. Carmichael could not say how many church members there are in Michigan, but he said there are about 3 million members worldwide.

A church who claims to have 3 million members can't say how many members they have in the state of Michigan?

The story rightly noted that the Scientologists will not pay property taxes on the building, but there is no explanation why the building receives an exception. Like many historic industrial cities, the city of Detroit could use every property tax dollar available and all exceptions, including for those for more traditional churches, deserve extra scrutiny by reporters. An exception is essentially a subsidy, and they are traditionally granted on the grounds that the services offered are so essential that they deserve the economic subsidy.

A reader of ours who sent us notice of this story had the following to say:

Not a bad story overall, I think. It's focused more on the economic and urban development issues than doctrines. I do appreciate the quotations from various local leaders who seem to have friendly relations with the organization as well as the German politicians who have opposed it. What I found most intriguing was the mention of the site as originally having been the place of a Roman Catholic Church constructed in 1701. By mentioning that the new church construction is taking the property back to its "roots," the reporter is making a fairly bold claim about the bona-fides of Scientology in historical context. I think the text box on the right could have been more complete.

The story's subhead, which states that the church is controversial, is backed-up in a section that doesn't say much other than how German politicians find the church controversial. It could have been more clearly noted, because German political opposition to the group is hardly half of what people find controversial about Scientology.

The sidebar says more about the church than the story and largely lets readers draw their own conclusion. I think it would have been better for the article to drop the word controversial and the section minimally discussing the church's controversial status, and just talked about what the church believes and its practices.

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