Scientology’s Celebrity Centre is housed in the old Château Élysée in Los Angeles. (Zeynep Taslica/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How Scientology emerged from L.A. and spread around the world

“Never treat a war like a skirmish. Treat all skirmishes like wars.”
 L. Ron Hubbard

Scientology was established in Los Angeles in February of 1954. A religion started by a science fiction author-turned-prophet who taught that humans are infested by brainwashed alien spirits banished to earth by a galactic dictator named Lord Xenu 75 million years ago, Scientology has been remarkably durable.

The church is estimated to have as many as 55,000 active members around the world, along with roughly $3 billion in cash and assets.

Critics say Scientology has embraced a survival strategy of not only vigorously opposing its enemies, but sending a message to anyone who might be tempted to cross it. Agents of the church have been repeatedly accused of efforts to smear, threaten, and surveil perceived foes, among them Nicole Kidman and the creators of “South Park.”

L. Ron Hubbard conducted a seminar in Los Angeles in 1950. Los Angeles Daily News/Los Angeles Public Library

But the group’s most remarkable campaign toppled Uncle Sam himself. For years, the IRS adamantly opposed tax exempt status for Scientology, saying it was a commercial enterprise. The church and individual Scientologists responded by filing thousands of lawsuits against the tax agency. Investigators were deployed to snoop on IRS officials.

The war of attrition culminated in 1991 during a private meeting between David Miscavige, the church’s leader, and Fred Goldberg, the IRS commissioner. Recognize Scientology as a religion, a Miscavige deputy told Goldberg, and the legal onslaught could be turned off— turning his hand for effect — “like a faucet,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

The government caved. Miscavige later announced the victory to thunderous applause at a Scientology gathering in Los Angeles. “The war,” he said, “is over.” The IRS reversal has been felt in Scientology’s birthplace, where the church holds a vast real estate portfolio. The Hollywood Reporter estimated that the group avoids hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax payments on its historic buildings alone.

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