Church of Scientology Convicted of Fraud in France

October 27, 2009

The AP reported today that a Paris court has convicted the Church of Scientology of organized fraud:

The court convicted the Church of Scientology's French office, its library and six of its leaders of organized fraud. Investigators said the group pressured members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and used ''commercial harassment'' against recruits.

The group was fined euro400,000 ($600,000) and the library euro200,000. Four of the leaders were given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years. The other two were given fines of euro1,000 and euro2,000.

A spokeswoman for the Church called the verdict "an Inquisition of modern times."  French authorities lamented that the court didn't go even further by banning and dissolving the group.

For those not in the know, the Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. France considers it to be a "sect." The Church has faced prosecution and difficulties in registering its activities in many countries.

This raises some interesting questions.  Was the French government right to prosecute the Church and its leaders for fraud, or is this an instance of improper interference with freedom of religion?  How far should government go in combating the questionable practices of religious organizations?  Under US law, "fraud" requires more than a false statement; some sort of guilty state of mind is required (for instance, knowledge or intent that the statement is false).  Should the government only prosecute when religious practitioners know they are being deceptive -- i.e., should the French prosecutors have left the Scientologists alone if they sincerely believed they were helping their church members by making them part with their cash? 

What about other questionable practices, such as the sale of indulgences , or paying psychics for their "advice"?  If "sellers" hold sincere religious beliefs, should the government take other steps to combat questionable practices when it should be reasonably clear that adherents aren't getting what's promised in exchange for their cash?

For the moment, never mind what I think.  I am curious to hear what readers have to say.