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Scientology's French fraud conviction: Not the first legal case

Scientology has faced several legal tussles in the US and Europe, with a fraud ruling against the church in France merely the latest.

By Staff writer / October 27, 2009

A Paris court fined the Church of Scientology 600,000 euros ($900,000) on Tuesday for aggressive sales tactics that the court said amounted to organized fraud. But the organization dodged a potential expulsion from the country.

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Four leaders of Scientology's French branch, which claims about 45,000 adherents, were also handed suspended prison sentences and fines. "This is an important... decision because it is the first time that Scientology has been found guilty of involvement in organized fraud," Olivier Morice, a lawyer for two French citizens who brought the fraud charges against Scientology, said.

Scientology is not recognized as a religion in France and it does not enjoy the tax-exempt status it has in the United States (won in 1993 after a legal battle with the IRS) and some other countries. The plaintiffs had hoped the group would be banned from operating in France, but a law that would have made that outcome possible changed shortly before the trial.

The ruling of fraud hinged on Scientology's use of its "E-meter" on people it was seeking to recruit into the church. The E-meter measures resistance to electrical current in the human body and is operated by a church official known as an auditor. Scientologists say that this reading of electrical currents can provide a measure of "spiritual duress" and help people improve the quality of their life by coming to understand and ridding themselves of alien entities known as "body thetans" that have attached themselves to the subject.

This use of the device is scientifically and medically unproven, and the court found in the plaintiffs' favor that the E-meter results were used to sell vitamins and other merchandise and services to the two plaintiffs.

Scientology and its celebrity adherents, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, sometimes attract controversy in the United States. But it has faced more legal challenges in Europe, particularly in France, where some government officials have described the group as a cult. Some German officials raised concerns about Tom Cruise playing the lead role in Valkyrie, a movie about a dissident officer of the Third Reich plotting to kill Hitler, because of his outspoken advocacy for his faith. In 1999, a US State Department human rights report said the organization had been unfairly discriminated against in France and Germany.

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