A protest over a proposed Church of Scientology-backed drug rehab center near Camp David has blown up into an intense proxy battle in the bitter culture war over the religion.
As a key Frederick County Council vote looms Tuesday, opponents of Narconon — a drug treatment program using the writings of Scientology founderL. Ron Hubbard and lengthy sauna sessions — suspect that they have been watched and even followed.
Narconon officials deny accusations of skullduggery, but people organizing against the drug treatment program are worried that their online conversations are being monitored. They say they are fending off Facebook group infiltrations from foes. In one incident, they found themselves face-to-face with sheriff’s deputies.
“It all begins to look like a circus after a while,” said David G. Bromley, a Virginia Commonwealth University religion professor who has researched Scientology. “Each side is convinced that the other side is the ultimate evil.”
Narconon representatives say they are not demonizing the opponents, that only a “very small minority” is trying to create a religious issue, and that most residents are interested in another way to address the region’s soaring heroin-addiction problem. But the tactics on both sides suggest that the stakes are much larger.
In April, Narconon asked some graduates to fly to Maryland to testify before the County Council and describe how the program had saved them from ruin. Top Scientology officials have met with Frederick News-Post reporters, stressing that the program is secular but “supported” by the church.
Opponents have countered by hosting two lectures by a former Canadian program participant and employee, who recounted his troubling memories. They are being advised by former Scientology members on how the church conducts business and what written works and tactics of Hubbard are used in treatment.
“There is a kind of media war going on between the church and former members,” said Lawrence Wright, author of a best-selling book about Scientology, “Going Clear,” that the church disputes along with the HBO documentary by the same name. “At stake is the image of Scientology and its future.”
Yes and no. Although protests of Scientology and Narconon materialize almost anywhere either of them go, the dispute in Frederick is not technically about religion. It’s about trout. More specifically, it’s about Trout Run, a 40-acre retreat where President Herbert Hoover reportedly fished and that served as the fictional Camp David on TV’s “The West Wing.”
Narconon wants to turn Trout Run, which a real estate company affiliated with Scientology bought for $4.85 million, into a rehab center. But because of zoning constraints, it must win a historical designation from the County Council. The council votes Tuesday on whether to grant the designation.
The vote has been delayed twice, giving opponents an opportunity to organize into a group called No Narconon at Trout Run, which has more than 300 members on Facebook. The group includes many Democrats with experience fighting county development, but Republicans and political novices have come forward, too.
“Normally, we wouldn’t all play well together,” said Mark Long, a Thurmont home inspector and one of the group’s leaders.
Although Narconon officials defend the program as a fresh start for “tens of thousands” of addicts in the United States and abroad, the organization has settled lawsuits across the country, including a wrongful-death case in Georgia after a 28-year-old man overdosed. Narconon of Georgia’s license was revoked in 2013, according to state health officials.
Members of No Narconon at Trout Run have lobbied the council about why they think the property is not historic, even tracking down former caretakers for testimony posted to YouTube. But the group’s name and its Facebook links — “Going Clear” is touted with, “If you haven’t seen this compelling documentary yet, please do!” — and other tactics appear to show that it is also trying to sway the council with objections to Narconon and Scientology itself.
That’s problematic because the county’s attorney has told the council that the vote cannot be about anything but the historic question, because of federal laws against religious discrimination. If council members use any other criteria, they and the county could face a lawsuit, according to council member Billy Shreve.
Long conceded that the group wants the council to consider Narconon and Scientology when it votes, just not to say so out loud.
“We want them to vote no and say nothing else,” Long said. “Period.”
The group has been doing everything it can to generate media attention.
Last month, David Love, an avowed Scientology enemy who said he “escaped” from a Narconon facility in Canada, traveled to Frederick to give two talks about the long-term treatment program, which can cost more than $30,000. Before he arrived to speak at the Urbana Regional Library in Frederick, opponents noticed that someone had left dozens of Narconon brochures around the library.
“A person who has not watched someone they love descend into drug abuse may think those affected by addiction are just ‘drunks, dopers, stonies or junkies,’ ” the brochure said. “A mother who has watched her beloved child lose everything to addiction knows better.”
Standing before about two dozen people, Love spoke about his experiences in Narconon — and program officials have taken issue with almost everything he’s said, insisting he has an ax to grind.
He described mandatory stare-down sessions, with one flinch resulting in failure. He recounted patients being ordered to speak with inanimate objects, including ashtrays. He detailed what he called the church’s attempts to destroy him, alleging that it had followed him and made up things about him online.
“It’s all a deceit and a lie,” Love said.
After the event, Love followed a No Narconon group member in his car to the member’s home. Love and the group allege that a vehicle with Virginia license plates that had been parked outside the library during the meeting followed them through Frederick County. Group members suspect that it was a private investigator hired by someone connected to the project. The details are listed on the group’s Web page under the heading “Incidents.”
Asked whether Narconon had tailed Love and the other member, Yvonne Rodgers, the program’s East Coast executive director, said: “This is the type of irresponsible rhetoric that peppers all of Mr. Love’s commentary. He is an avowed hater of anyone and anything associated with Narconon. His comments are neither fair nor objective.”
Love’s response: “Nonsense.”
Rodgers flagged a YouTube video of Love talking about how Narconon had saved his life. “I am appalled that he would use the additional years we have added to his life to attempt to foment hate and prejudice against the very people who salvaged him from ruin,” Rodgers said.
Love denies that Narconon got him off drugs and said he spoke in the YouTube video, but “you really need to understand the mind control and brainwashing that goes on inside Narconon.”
Scientology experts said the church has used private investigators in the past.
“The Church of Scientology has a long history of hiring private investigators, not only for the purpose of gaining intelligence on its opponents, but also to intimidate critics,” said Wright, the author of “Going Clear.” “This practice goes back to the founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who taught that anyone who spoke against the church was a criminal and should be dealt with ruthlessly.”
Rodgers acknowledged that Narconon officials called police about the group. That happened the day after the event at the public library, when Love and several group members visited Trout Run. The group said its members and Love stayed on public property. Narconon says Love did not. The dustup is listed on No Narconon’s “Incidents” Web page.
The group has also alleged that several Scientologists have tried to join the group’s Facebook page and that someone named “Pete James” was posting negative information about Love on the page. “This tactic of using a web site to diminish a former employee or ex-Scientology [member],” the group says, “is referred to as ‘dead agenting.’ ”
Invoking the phrase “dead agenting” in a dispute over a historic designation is emblematic of how kooky things can get when Scientology or its affiliates come to town.
Narconon officials don’t see it that way, though. They said they are focused on helping people quit drugs.
“The Trout Run property is a beautiful, idyllic, country resort,” Rodgers said. “It is exactly the type of location that you would want to send a loved one in order to help them recover from drug addiction.”