Cover Story

Sect apart

Separating church and state is all the rage, but three communities show that the American tradition of religious cities lives on

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

Over the past century, a bizarre twist of legal misinterpretation has expanded the Constitution's Establishment Clause from merely separating church and state to scrubbing religion from public life. But in some small to midsize municipalities scattered throughout the United States, religious communities are proving that federal standards need not subvert local values.

These groups have not only thwarted the strict federal standard for church-state separation; they have secured state sponsorship of religious or spiritual activities, government support ranging from simple tax breaks to functional theocracies.

In Clearwater, Fla., Scientologists have bought up large sections of the city's downtown, flooded the boards of various civic groups, and become a major player in local politics-all part of the church's plan to "take control" of the city, according to secret documents seized decades ago during an FBI investigation.

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In southeast Iowa, followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded Maharishi Vedic City six years ago, establishing an independent town governed and inhabited by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM).

And in a region straddling the northern border of the Arizona Strip, the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., are home to thousands of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamy-supporting spinoff from mainstream Mormonism.

Each of these three communities has faced opposition from neighbors and surrounding authorities. But their continued existence testifies that, despite recent squeamishness over religion in the public square, parts of the country remain true to America's historical identity as a religious liberty theme park.

The concept of religious or spiritual-based cities is hardly foreign to the nation's history. Puritans founded Boston in 1630 as "a city on a hill" and later banished dissidents. Dozens of Unitarian, Shaker, and transcendentalist villages dotted the American landscape in the mid 19th century-none more prominent than Brook Farm, a socialist commune in the Massachusetts countryside that attracted such eminent idealists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Subsequent religious cities sprang up throughout the 1890s, including the social-gospel-advocating Christian Commonwealth Colony in Georgia, the Methodist-based Society of the Burning Bush in eastern Texas, and John Alexander Dowie's Pentecostal Zion City, Ill., which grew to 8,000 residents and sparked the faith-healing movement of the early 20th century.

Such Christian iterations of isolationist living stood in contrast to the biblical charge to remain in the world. The very concept of a Christian commune does not square with Christ's call to salt and illuminate the earth.

But for Scientologists in Clearwater, TM practitioners in Iowa, and FLDS members on the Arizona Strip, such injunctions against isolationism do not apply.


When Timothy Brown, pastor of Countryside Baptist Church in Clearwater, recently sought permission to conduct evangelistic surveys at a local mall, the shopping center's officials turned him down. That verdict surprised the former Texas minister, who had faced little resistance to such practices elsewhere in the Bible Belt.

But as Brown soon discovered, Clearwater is a long way from Texas. Housed in the very same mall is a self-help kiosk operated by the Church of Scientology.

About 12,000 Scientologists live in this 110,000-person Gulf Coast city 20 miles west of Tampa. That percentage might seem less than overwhelming, but a high concentration of church members downtown dramatically raises both their visibility and influence.

The church owns dozens of properties in the city's urban core, many of them tax-exempt. Its new seven-story Flag Building fills an entire block, ample room to house Scientology's superpower program, which purports to endow high-level church members with supernatural abilities.

Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, brought his new religion to Clearwater in 1975, secretly purchasing property downtown and hiding his intentions to rebirth the struggling city as the church's international headquarters. As local residents caught on to the scheme, they organized large protests and commissioned a special police task force to investigate the church's cult-like practices.

Scientologists believe higher consciousness is attainable through "auditing," an extremely expensive and intense counseling technique during which members are asked to relive their darkest memories. The personal information shared in these sessions is recorded and sometimes used against defecting members who speak ill of the church. As Scientologists pay the exorbitant prices necessary to reach subsequent levels of consciousness, they learn secret doctrines reminiscent of cheap science fiction novels.

Despite such bizarre teachings, community angst in Clearwater has settled down in recent years. Many citizens remain wary of the uniformly dressed church members filling city sidewalks and public spaces, but active opposition is now rare.


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