Someone forgot to tell the Church of Scientology there’s no culture in Vegas.
On Feb. 6, the controversial church—founded in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard—unveiled its 40,000-square-foot Church of Scientology & Celebrity Centre Las Vegas. Its goal is to enrich the lives of artists (writers, actors, musicians) and improve the community, said church leader David Miscavige.
“What plays in this city now plays in every other cultural capital on Earth,” said Miscavige, who has led the church since Hubbard’s death in 1986. “And even more than that, it’s not London, Paris, Tokyo, Milan or New York that tops the résumé of international performers these days. No, it’s the fact one can say: ‘I do Las Vegas, which is Show Town Planet Earth.’”
The center—which provides a place for artists and entertainers to work for free—includes a bookstore, 200-seat chapel, sprawling courtyard, outdoor café, information center lined with audio-visual displays and classrooms. Formerly the Congregation Ner Tamid synagogue, the building’s interior is sleek and stylish (hardwood floors, mosaics, exposed ceiling beams) and adorned with Hubbard quotes such as: “A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists.”
“We want to service artists in an environment that is appropriate for them and private and enables them to continue their careers, as well as continue their spiritual advancement,” says Jessica Feshbach, a national spokeswoman for the church, noting that the center is open to the public and also offers social and literacy programs.
Feshbach says the church has millions of members worldwide and about 2,000 in Las Vegas, many of whom are artists and entertainers. (When asked what local celebrities are Scientologists, Feshbach said she didn’t want to discuss particular members.) The church is publicizing the center through ads, mailers, news media and word of mouth, she says.
On the rainy opening night, hundreds of people—including Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman—gathered in the center’s parking lot. Ross says he was unaware of the controversies surrounding the church, which has been characterized as a cult and business for some of its practices. (Scientology-related books, CDs and DVDs are sold at the center; and the church generally charges $50 to $750 per membership class.) The church also has been accused of harassing ex-members and critics.
“I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I’ve heard a lot of the same things said about it,” says Ross, who spoke at the opening. “You get that from disgruntled members. But any organization that helps men and women with family issues and life issues is good.”
At his Feb. 18 news conference, Goodman said he wasn’t at all reluctant to attend the opening.
“It’s sort of like Clint Eastwood said, ‘Trouble follows me,’” Goodman said. “I know that the church has had issues in the past, but the folks I met with were bending over backwards to be nice to me.”
South Park, The New Yorker and many other media outlets in between have accused the Church of Scientology of using celebrities (Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta) to trumpet its message and attract new members. But Feshbach says that isn’t what the Church of Scientology & Celebrity Centre Las Vegas is all about.
“Obviously, we’re spreading our word to celebrities and everyday people alike. But if somebody is saying we’re trying to do something sinister, they’re uninformed and don’t know anything about Scientology,” she says. “We’re here for the artists and everyday people of Las Vegas and we have a track record of improving lives. We’re proud of the work we do.” The Church of Scientology & Celebrity Centre Las Vegas is at 2761 Emerson Ave. It’s open from 9 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week. For more information, call 731-1500 or visit scientology-lasvegas.org.