As the Church of Scientology battles a band of cyberspace dissidents - seizing computers and papers from the homes of vocal online critics in the past two weeks - local defectors charge they are being harassed for speaking out against the church.
Robert Vaughn Young and Stacy Young, longtime staff members who left the Church of Scientology in 1989, complained to police that Scientologists have picketed their house in West Seattle at least five times in the past two weeks. They said protesters carrying signs reading "Stop the Hate" and "Protect the First Amendment" yelled derogatory statements about them to their neighbors.
Ann Ruble, a Scientology spokeswoman in Seattle, called the picketing "a peaceful First Amendment demonstration" to protest the Youngs' involvement with the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that monitors religious groups such as the Church of Scientology.
CAN condones the practice of kidnapping members and forcibly "deprogramming" them, Ruble said.
"It rips families apart," she said. "We don't like the religious intolerance and bigotry going on in our town."
Robert Young for years handled Scientology public relations and appeared on radio and television as a spokesman.
Young said the Internet - particularly a news group called alt.religion.scientology - which he and others have used extensively to exchange information, presents a "new threat to this organization."
"This is its worst nightmare," Young said, explaining that the church is secretive about its operations and cannot effectively control information on the Net.
Since the couple left the church in 1989 they have been vocal critics of Scientology, describing it in articles and interviews as a dangerous cult that does not tolerate criticism. They have testified as expert witnesses in successful litigation against the Church of Scientology.
Life inside the Scientology organization, they said, meant 12-hour days with as little pay as $24 a week, constant interrogations attached to a lie-detector machine called an "E-meter" and time in re-education camps called the "Rehabilitation Project Force" where they performed hard physical labor.
Both the Youngs said they spent time in such camps.
"You just fold," Robert Young said. "Ninety-five percent of the people that leave just want their life back. They don't want to speak out."
The Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles dismisses the Youngs as part of a small band of disgruntled ex-members, some who have been extremely active on the Internet, trying to extort money from them. It claims the Youngs have asked for as much as $500,000 from the church to keep quiet - a claim the Youngs deny.
"When they left, they were helped to leave. There's no restrictions on anybody coming or going," said Mike Rinder, a 22-year Scientology member in the Office of Special Affairs who said he worked with the Youngs.
Rinder accused the Youngs of lying about their mistreatment and said the Youngs had not been "particularly successful at anything they did."
He described the Rehabilitation Project Force as "a program for church staff designed to rehabilitate people who are not . . . performing their duties well" that is an alternative to firing.
Rinder also said the "E-meters" used in counseling sessions were designed to measure thought and help people "isolate areas of upset and travail in their life."
He said the church has conducted four raids in the last year in order to protect copyrighted scriptures.
"What we do not want is people to be violating our right to have our religion practiced the way we want it to be practiced," he said.
The Church of Scientology is a religious movement headquartered in Los Angeles that claims to have as many as 8 million members around the world. It grew out of the publication of "Dianetics" in 1950, a best-selling book on self-enhancement written by the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Members consider Scientology a practical religious philosophy that helps them overcome daily obstacles. They pay large fees to receive instructions on how to progress through a series of levels of spirituality.
Scientology has about 500 active members in Seattle.
After a long battle with the Internal Revenue Service, the Church of Scientology was granted tax-exempt status as a religion in 1993 and reported assets of $275 million.
In Boulder, Colo., Tuesday, U.S. marshals raided the homes of two church detractors who ran an organization called FACTNet (Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network), took their computers and files and turned it over to Scientology members. Scientology lawyers said they got the court order for the raids with charges that the people were violating federal copyright laws by posting copyrighted Scientology scriptures on the Net.
In a similar move two weeks ago in Arlington, Va., U.S. marshals seized computer equipment and files from Arnaldo Lerma, a 44-year-old electronics engineer who left the Church of Scientology in 1977.
The church said Lerma posted private and confidential teachings on the Net. Lerma argued that the information he posted came from an affidavit in a legal case involving the church and was hence a public document.