The Church of Scientology has leveled a barrage of lawsuits at one of its most persistent critics, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), which CAN officials say is part of an organized plan to destroy the organization.

During one 48-hour period last October, 20 suits were filed against CAN by members of the Church of Scientology, most alleging religious discrimination by the anticult group for not allowing Scientologists to join.

Currently, CAN faces about 35 lawsuits, the number growing almost weekly, and filed in courts across the country, says executive director Cynthia Kisser. Though the suits have been filed by different individuals, all identify themselves as members of the Church of Scientology, the religious organization founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard, author of Dianetics. Many complaints contain identical wording. None has been argued in court yet.

“The Church of Scientology is backing the suits,” Kisser says, “trying to bring us to bankruptcy, or to find the right court to rule in their favor and allow them to take over from within.”

Can anyone join?

The Scientologists contend that because CAN is a tax-exempt organization, it must allow anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, to join. The lawsuits have come in response to CAN’s “systematic discrimination” against Scientologists, says Mary Anne Ahmad, director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Illinois. The main issue being pressed in the legal actions, she says, is religious freedom.

Ahmad said that the similar wording of the complaints was very likely the result of the individuals consulting the same attorneys, who would be familiar with such cases. She has no knowledge of how or if the church is involved in the suits.

However, Scientologists do want to “reform” CAN from within, by joining the organization in “areas of effectiveness” and influencing its decisions, Ahmad says. She claims CAN has wandered from its original purpose of informing the public of religious rights and responsibilities. She charges that CAN has spread defamatory information about Scientology, and that it promotes the work of “deprogrammers” who have been accused of forcibly removing members of aberrant religious groups.

“Any group CAN decides it doesn’t like, it calls a cult,” Ahmad says. “Government guarantees religious freedom. If someone has a belief in a religious philosophy, you can’t say ‘that’s bad religion.’ ”

CAN, founded shortly after the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978, promotes public awareness of what it calls “destructive cults,” focusing on the ethical and legal practices, rather than doctrinal beliefs of religious, political, and self-help groups. It identifies those groups by characteristics such as mind control, deception, exclusivity, and exploitation.

From its beginning, Kisser says, the secular organization has been concerned with the harmful effects of such groups, offering information to the public and support for friends and family of cult members. CAN has received complaints about the practices of scores of groups, including some that follow some traditional Christian doctrines. CAN’s national office is located in Chicago and has 21 local affiliates.

Courtroom victories

CAN recently won courtroom victories in federal and several state courts. In those cases, courts have ruled that the organization, as a nonprofit group, is not a place of public accommodation and therefore is not subject to the same nondiscrimination rules as a business or public office.

CAN has also gone to court against several individuals for unauthorized use of its name. In those cases, Kisser says, Scientologists have used CAN letterhead and have set up local organizations, claiming to be the “real” CAN affiliate.

Scientologists allegedly attempted to disrupt CAN’s national conference in November by pressuring the hotel to cancel its arrangements for the group, picketing, infiltrating the meetings, and harassing conferees.

Prior to the national conference, eight Scientologists gained a preliminary injunction from a California court, forcing CAN to allow them to attend the meeting. In fact, Kisser says, most had not registered for the conference, and several other Scientologists had been allowed to register. Under the injunction, some of the eight did attend.

“We felt we had a well-founded belief,” Kisser said, “that their attending would be problematic and disruptive to the conference, and would cause harm to CAN.”

Kisser has also filed a personal suit against a number of publications and individuals connected to the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, and the organization of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. She charges that they have conspired to spread false stories linking her with deviant sexual behavior and criminal activity.

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