The first room visitors encounter inside the new Church of Scientology in Sandy Springs, which opened to the public April 3, is not a chapel or shrine. It’s a museum-like series of displays and videos about the religion’s basic beliefs and causes. Visitors can try out an e-meter—the unique electronic device Scientologists use in counseling members—and grab a snack in a small café.
This Public Information Center is part of the Georgia chapter’s new status as one of Scientology’s “Ideal Churches” or “Ideal Organizations.” As Scientology spokesperson Erin Banks put it during a recent building tour, that means “a church that can serve our parishioners, but not only Scientologists, [and] actually be a home for the entire community.”
Meeting rooms are available for community groups, and the church will partner with other organizations on such efforts as anti-drug programs. That work is one reason why the church is occupying such a huge building—50,000 square feet and four stories—at Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive. “This is really a home for all of those outreach programs,” Banks said.
The display room also lets the local church indirectly respond to controversy that has dogged Scientology since the 1970s, when several of its top leaders–none of whom remain in office–were imprisoned in relation to a plan to infiltrate various U.S. government agencies. The 1995 death, from disputed causes, of a Scientology member under the care of a church organization in Florida has sparked regular protests, including a 2008 march outside the local chapter’s former building in Dunwoody. The recent documentary film “Going Clear” repeated many allegations that Scientology is abusive of some members and harasses its critics; Scientology officials say such claims are false and that the church is a target of persecution.
“My response would be…anyone that actually comes to the church and finds out for themselves, finds out that all that is hogwash,” said Deb MacKay, the local church’s community affairs director. Visitors discover that “98 percent of what they heard or read on the internet was perpetrated by some person who had an ax to grind” or the result of media manipulation, she said.
“My response to that is come and find out for yourself,” MacKay added. “It’s not frightening. It’s very welcoming. There are no secrets here. People are happy. So come and find out for yourself.”
The tour covered much of the sprawling brick building, a former real estate office that is much larger than the Georgia chapter’s previous locations. The chapter was founded in the 1970s on Piedmont Road in Buckhead, MacKay said, before moving to Dunwoody and, more recently, Doraville. The move to Sandy Springs took over 10 years of fundraising and a freedom-of-religion lawsuit against a city zoning decision. The Roswell Road location was big enough for an “Ideal Church,” MacKay said, and “the church has historically been in this part of town, so everybody kind of wanted to stay in the community that they knew and loved.”
The interior is brightly lit with modern styling and quotes from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard decorating many walls. A modest chapel is in the basement–Banks said the congregation numbers in the “hundreds” and has main services on Sunday–and one wing houses a bookstore devoted to Hubbard’s many writings. A wood-paneled conference room is available for public use, as are seminar rooms with audio-visual equipment.
A museum-style recreation of Hubbard’s office, preserved as a kind of shrine for public viewing, is a special feature. Banks said the office is a “symbol of respect” for Hubbard and a sign that the church is following his teachings. Each Ideal Church has such an office.
The tour included a private auditing room where Scientologists undergo a kind of counseling via the e-meter—one of the religion’s core practices in self-improvement. A rounded device with a gauge and metal grips, the e-meter looks something like an old-fashioned radio. Scientologists believe the e-meter “measures mental stress” with tiny, unnoticeable electric charges and aids the auditing process, Banks said.
Another feature is the “purification center,” a kind of health spa with a sauna, large dispensers of vitamin pills, and treadmills facing a mural of the Atlanta skyline and Georgia peaches. Scientologists believe that toxins built up in the body can be removed in the center. Banks said one member’s sweat during such a purification was purple from toxins.
The Public Information Center highlights Scientology’s programs about human rights, which the Georgia chapter ties into Atlanta’s Civil Rights history. MacKay said a Scientology-produced human rights video plays in Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights–which the center later confirmed–and that she recently spoke at an Atlanta high school about human rights for a class project on the death penalty.
A private April 2 grand opening featured several leaders of several nonprofits the Georgia chapter works with, as well as state Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), who has frequently praised Scientology programs, though MacKay said she is not a church member. Video of the opening provided by the church shows James praising Hubbard as “before his time, during his time and…still most relevant at this time.”
David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology, also evoked Civil Rights at the opening in calling the new church the base of “Scientology for a new American South,” according to a press release. He called Atlanta “a city of grace and magic, a city where even oaks and magnolias possess souls; and a city of remembrance that also foretells of the future.”
The new Church of Scientology is open to the general public on weekdays 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information about the church or using its community spaces, call 707-394-4414, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see scientology-atlanta.org.