By all appearances, Clearwater lives up to its name. Located just outside of Tampa Bay, the city boasts palm trees, white beaches, sun, surf, and six cruise tour companies with "dolphin sightings guaranteed." Liberally supplied with spacious hotels within driving distance of the Busch Gardens amusement park and the Salvador Dali museum, Clearwater is a tidy burg with street names like Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Sunset Point Road.

Clearwater is also home to the most prestigious international instructional center for the Church of Scientology, one of the most controversial and aggressive new religions worldwide. In the past 25 years, the growth of Scientology in Clearwater has transformed the city's downtown corridor, reshaped its religious climate, and caused Christian churches to rethink their response to religions that proclaim an unbiblical message.

In 1975 Scientology owned two of the major buildings in downtown Clearwater. Now the Church of Scientology boasts 30, including a newly constructed center that will expand its ability to train new members by 400 percent. Scientology's influence is felt in city planning, community events, and service projects; many Clearwater Christians are stunned by how Scientology is redefining their community. To reach out with cultural sensitivity, the Church of Scientology employs many methods Christians have used over the centuries: showing compassion for the vulnerable and striving to be a model corporate citizen. But individuals and organizations tell stories of having been harassed, threatened, or sued.

Some Christians in Clearwater call Scientology a pushy, money-driven cult that preys on the vulnerable. Others avoid confrontation, striving to tolerate or even welcome Scientology as a ...

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September 4, 2000

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