CLEARWATER — In an unprecedented public condemnation by a local religious organization about the Church of Scientology, Calvary Baptist Church Pastor Willy Rice declared Wednesday that the "community has been tormented by this Goliath for far too long."
"Someone has to pick up a rock and a slingshot and trust God with the results," Rice wrote in a blog post that has since been removed from the Calvary website. "We believe we are in a unique position in this community and should try to help."
To expose "the cult's dangerous, deceptive and abusive practices," Calvary Baptist had committed to allow A&E's Emmy-nominated Scientology and the Aftermath series to film a public forum in its worship center July 22. However, on Thursday, A&E senior vice president Dan Silberman said the network never arranged for such a town hall and none will be held.
Silberman said the show's producers talked about filming private interviews at Calvary, but not in a public format. Silberman said, to his knowledge, A&E was not pressured by Scientology.
The show, created by actor and former Scientologist Leah Remini, debuted last year to 2.1 million viewers and documented alleged physical, emotional and financial abuse suffered by former members.
"We believe this represents an important, perhaps historic, opportunity to expose the cult of Scientology and the harm it has brought to our community and to many thousands of people," Rice wrote about the idea of the forum.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw called Rice "a religious bigot," promoting non-Christian and un-American views as he "shamelessly offered Calvary Chapel as a venue for hate speech."
"Pastor Rice should pray for forgiveness, forgiveness for his un-Christian conduct and for attempting to pull his congregation down the same false path," Shaw said. "In inciting his congregation to pick up a rock and a slingshot, Pastor Rice must also assume responsibility for the consequences, not only for his bigotry, but for the inevitable hate crimes instigated by his 'forum.' "
As Clearwater's oldest church, founded in 1866 and with 6,000 members today on McMullen-Booth Road and a high school, Rice said the congregation has a duty to warn about Scientology's alleged abuses. Scientology arrived in Clearwater in 1975 and has its international spiritual headquarters downtown. It has amassed more than $200 million worth of property in the city.
In 2009 and 2010, the FBI conducted a human trafficking investigation into Scientology's low-paid, military style workforce known as the Sea Org. No criminal charges were filed.
Before the church removed the post from its website, Dr. David Rice, Calvary's executive pastor and brother of Willy Rice, told the Times that A&E producers initiated the dialogue and requested the forum.
He said neither Remini nor former Scientology official Mike Rinder, who appears on the show, are members of the congregation. But Willy Rice has an "acquaintanceship" with Rinder, who lives in Palm Harbor.
Willy Rice could not be reached for comment. David Rice acknowledged the rarity for a religion to come out so boldly against Scientology.
"No person should use the religious faith of another to curtail their freedom or otherwise do harm," David Rice said.
In his statement, Willy Rice warned the congregation to brace for retaliation. Scientology has historically sued critics, aggressively surveilled defectors, including Scientology leader David Miscavige's father, and published extensive websites and articles defaming those who condemn its practices.
"We should anticipate an attack upon Calvary and our leaders and thus should pray for God's protection and pray that what some may mean for evil, God will use for good," Willy Rice wrote. "Our pastors and congregational leaders will respond as necessary to any attacks in the way we feel honors the Lord and defends the truth."
Shaw said Scientology believes everyone has a right to practice their religion and "respecting the religious beliefs of others is the path to peace; history shows that disrespecting the beliefs of others leads to war and strife."
Shaw encouraged Calvary members to read The Way to Happiness, a "moral code" written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Precept 18, titled Respect the Religious Beliefs of Others, states: "One is at liberty to hold up his own beliefs for acceptance. One is at risk when he seeks to assault the beliefs of others, much more so when he attacks and seeks to harm them because of their religious convictions."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.
Editor's note: This article was changed to reflect the following correction: Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater operates a high school. An article Thursday gave the incorrect number of grades offered.