CLEARWATER -- Vowing to speak out against "the propaganda of hate," a new organization of local Scientologists is gearing up to counter the efforts of Robert S. Minton, the New England millionaire who is setting up shop in downtown Clearwater to oppose the Church of Scientology.
The new organization is called the Lisa McPherson Foundation, named for the veteran Scientologist whose 1995 death while in the care of church members has saddled Scientology with a lawsuit, a criminal prosecution and increased pressure from its critics.
And, in an added twist that local Scientologists find appalling, the case has resulted in McPherson's name being used against the church they say she loved.
Although McPherson had been a practicing Scientologist for 13 years, the church's critics consider her a martyr for their cause. The name of Minton's group, for example, is the Lisa McPherson Trust, which plans to present a dark picture of Scientology to locals and provide "exit counseling" for those who want to leave the church.
In contrast, the Lisa McPherson Foundation seeks to pull McPherson's name back into the Scientology camp by opposing Minton at every turn and by "standing up for religious tolerance," said Bennetta Slaughter, the foundation's leader.
Slaughter, a prominent Scientologist in Clearwater, was McPherson's longtime friend and employer at AMC Publishing Co.
"I will, in fact, counter any hate that will come from them and I will handle that," Slaughter said of Minton and his group in an interview last week. "They are not going to poison this town."
She added: "There's a large difference between free speech and the propaganda of hate. . . . Name one good thing that he's bringing to this community. I can't think of one."
The foundation has about 300 members, Slaughter said.
Its first project was an inch-thick binder using information compiled by Church of Scientology staff members. The binder documents Minton's controversial encounters with the church, two of which have resulted in his arrest on misdemeanor battery charges.
It also includes background information on five Scientology critics who have worked with Minton, including records on criminal convictions, criminal allegations and instances when Scientology has defeated them in civil courts.
Slaughter said the foundation doesn't plan to widely disseminate the binder but will "give it to people who are in positions who should know . . . so that they can be informed."
She added the group would oppose Minton in other ways as needed.
The foundation also will be working with other local churches on "social betterment activities" and will promote the "restoration of religious practice" in all denominations as a way to reduce social ills, Slaughter said.
"It matters not to me where people go to church," she said. "I'd just like to see them go to church."
She said most Scientologists in Clearwater are longtime members who resent an outsider like Minton telling them their church abuses people.
In a phone interview from his New Hampshire farm, Minton responded, saying he primarily is opposed to Scientology's strict "ethics" system, which he called harmful.
He cited records that came to light after McPherson's death indicating she was struggling under a Scientology ethics program being administered at Slaughter's company. In a wrongful death lawsuit filed by McPherson's family and financed by Minton, that ethics program is alleged to have caused the severe mental breakdown that played a key role in her death.
"Bennetta Slaughter is herself part and parcel of the Scientology abuse process," Minton said.
He said he plans to close his purchase of a local headquarters on Jan. 5. He has said the building is next to a Scientology property in downtown Clearwater, but has not named the location. The staff will include former Scientologists who want to share their perceptions of the church with current members.
Echoing Scientology officials, Slaughter characterized Minton's headquarters as a deprograming center that will illegally detain people.
She called it "the height of arrogance" for Minton to be interpreting Scientology for Scientologists.
"I find that so offensive, as do every single one of my friends in the church," she said. "He's trying to position himself as someone reasonable, when in fact what he's saying is complete bunk."