Coronavirus

Restaurants Have Accidentally Promoted Coronavirus Info From Scientologists

Given the Church of Scientology's history of unusual recruitment techniques, it's pretty likely this is all just a PR move.
16 June 2020, 10:00am
scientologists coronavirus
Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Several months ago, New Zealand's Government produced a "Unite Against Covid-19" campaign that provided health advice, information about good hygiene, and other resources for the country's residents. (It has since been renamed "Unite for the Recovery," since there are currently zero active cases of coronavirus in the country.) Those campaign materials had a minimalist design and an understated black, white, and yellow color palette, so when a similar-looking stack of pamphlets appeared in an Auckland restaurant, no one thought they were at all out-of-place. The 30-plus page booklets, called "How to Keep Yourself & Others Well" shared tips for staying safe during a pandemic, offered some more general health tips... and also had a QR code on the back cover that took readers directly to the Church of Scientology's website.

According to the NZ Herald, as soon as the general manager of the Mexican Cafe realized that the literature hadn't been provided by the Ministry of Health, he removed them from the premises. "We are taking them out just because we are not happy about promoting the Church of Scientology at all," he said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told the outlet that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with individual organizations—even the Church of Scientology—"choosing to share general hygiene advice, which is what this appears to be." (Dr. Susie Wiles, a microbiologist who co-created a now viral GIF that explained the concept of "Flattening the Curve" in the early days of the pandemic, was slightly less diplomatic about taking advice from unscientific sources. "You can always just be polite," she said. "Just take the pamphlet and then pop it in the recycling bin.")

The Mexican Cafe wasn't the only business fooled by the muted colors and clip art-caliber graphics of the Scientology pamphlet. In Australia, retailers have accidentally put the pamphlets on display, believing that they'd been printed by that country's government. A "horrified" shopper had to tell the manager at one Woolworth's supermarket about what they'd made available to their customers.

"We didn’t authorize the placement of these materials in our check-outs," a spokesperson for the chain told 7News. "As soon as this was brought to the attention of our team by a customer, the pamphlets were removed and discarded." (A 7-11 spokesperson basically said the same thing after a box of the brochures were found in one of its Brisbane stores.)

Dr. Danielle McMullen, the President of the Australian Medical Association - New South Wales said that it was "frustrating" that these booklets were being disseminated. "Don’t take health advice from the Church of Scientology, rely on doctors and the Health Department," she said.

This hasn't just happened in the Southern Hemisphere either. During a May press briefing, Ohio governor Mike DeWine mistakenly showed off a Scientology brochure that he said would be included in a "health kit" that would be distributed to members of minority communities that had been disproportionately affected by coronavirus. (The other items in the kit included face coverings, hand sanitizer, and what DeWine called "equally important literature.")

After the brochure was called out, DeWine's office was quick to say that he had the only copy of "Keep Yourself & Others Well," and that it had not been included in any of the packets that would be given out. Dan Tierney, DeWine's spokesperson, told Cleveland.com that the Scientology booklet had been added by an employee from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC). "The bag was assembled by a DRC staff member as far as what we’ve been able to determine at this point,” he said. “We’re still looking into it.”

Earlier that month, a group of volunteers who were assembling student meal boxes for the Pinellas County (Fla.) public school district slipped some of their literature—this time, a brochure called "How to Prevent the Spread of Illness with Isolation—into more than 80 boxes.

Those pages violated the district's policy against "engaging in religious activities on school property," and prompted complaints from parents and from members of the school board. Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw basically told the _Tampa Bay Time_s that the church's volunteers just didn't know that they weren't supposed to give that info to school kids.

"[The church members] confused the different volunteer activities and, in their exuberance, thought the booklets would be helpful to the families receiving the food distribution at home," he said. "We are sorry if anyone was offended. Our volunteers offer assistance in the community for the same reason any volunteer does: they want to help.”

But the situation felt "kind of sneaky" to Bill Dudley, a member of the School Board. "It’s religious advertising, but kind of back-dooring it,” he said. “I appreciate the volunteering. But it should be for the right reasons, not to promote something without authorization."

The Church of Scientology has defended its series of pandemic-related booklets, which include the previously mentioned "How to Keep Yourself & Others Well" and "How to Prevent the Spread of Illness With Isolation," along with "How to Protect Yourself & Others With a Mask & Gloves." A spokesperson has said that they "could not vaguely be considered 'religious literature'" and they don't mention anything about the Church's beliefs—although each one does have a URL and a QR code for the Scientology website, as well as "Courtesy of Church of Scientology International" printed on the back cover.

Printing assorted booklets isn't a new tactic for the church; you can also request copies of other literature like "The Truth About Drugs," "A Description of Scientology," or "The Way of Happiness," which is distributed through the Scientology-adjacent Way to Happiness Foundation. But some of the church's critics (who are often former members) say that these freebies—and the volunteer programs that hand them out—are part of Scientology's plan to be taken seriously, to gain "mainstream" acceptance, and to attract donations and financial support.

"Those activities are never done for the intrinsic value of helping people. It’s always done for the PR," Dani Ballou, who previously worked for Scientology’s Sea Org, told the Tampa Bay Times. "Just the simple act of packing food into a bag for kids for the school system, you wouldn’t dare waste that opportunity to promote church."

The information contained in the "Stay Well" series also seems to be at odds with Scientology leader David Miscavige's personal beliefs about coronavirus. In a March memo he wrote to members of the church, he referred to the "the current hysteria" of the developing pandemic. He also claimed that church members were "preventing and/or killing" coronavirus by cleaning their buildings with "nebulized peroxide and Decon7.” (Neither of those sanitation methods are mentioned in the "Stay Well" booklets.)

Tony Ortega, the former Village Voice editor who has fervently reported on Scientology for his own website, told the Daily Beast that Miscavige had instructed Scientologists to go to their local church to read his letter. "They’re trying to get people to come in. They’re saying you gotta stay with the courses and auditing, and they’re worrying about the money drying up," Ortega said. "Scientology was not set up to be done over the internet. It really requires person-to-person contact."

Last month, a church spokesperson said that there had been zero cases of coronavirus among the congregation of its West Coast headquarters in East Hollywood, Los Angeles. "Our Church’s message to its members is: An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure," she said.