Coconut Grove

Church of Scientology opens a massive new center in Coconut Grove

A ribbon cutting for a religious organization rarely draws VIPs and a crowd of thousands. But Saturday’s opening celebration of a massive new Church of Scientology center in Coconut Grove was an exception.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado was among the 2,000 invitation-only guests at the 50,000-square-foot facility. Also in the crowd were former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart and David Miscavige, Scientology’s polarizing ecclesiastical leader, who has been accused of using physical violence against some of the church’s members.

Regalado says the church approached him several months ago with plans for the building, which were approved for meeting all zoning requirements.

“They offered to do volunteer projects that would benefit the city,” Regalado says. “It’s a beautiful building and it’s a huge investment. I was also informed that through their foundation, they are helping dissidents in Cuba.”

The Church of Scientology is protected by the U.S. Constitution and is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit institution, Regalado said.

“I’m aware of the criticism,” he said. “But it is not my job to investigate those charges. That would be the job of the court and the authorities. To me everything about the church is legal, they are protected by the federal government and they want to be part of the community and help Miami’s poor neighborhoods, so they should be welcomed.”

The Miami Herald and other local media were not invited to the opening. Erin Banks, public affairs representative for the Church of Scientology, said it’s standard practice for parishioners to get a first look at new churches.

The four-story building (plus another three levels of covered parking) at 2200 S. Dixie Hwy. was purchased by the church in 2012 for $7 million and completely renovated for another $8 million. The facility, redesigned by the architectural firm Gensler, features a state-of-the-art chapel, multimedia interactive booths, counseling rooms and a café.

The new center is part of an international expansion, following recent church openings in Auckland and Tokyo, among other cities. “We’ve experienced a bigger growth in the past 10 years than in the previous 50 years combined,” Banks said. “That expansion warranted a new facility in Miami.”

The new building joins the existing Church of Scientology in Florida, which was established in 1957 at 120 Giralda Ave. in Coral Gables. Scientology spokesperson Nick Banks said the church’s parishioner base in Miami is “upwards of 10,000,” although exact membership figures are difficult to pin down. One survey by the American Religious Identification Survey pegs the U.S. total at 25,000.

Erin Banks says the new building will be open seven days a week and use a staff of 165 church volunteers, who will receive a monetary compensation for their service.

The Church of Scientology, which is headquartered in Clearwater, has been the subject of great scrutiny for alleged human rights violations and mistreatment of its members. In his 2013 book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief,” which was later adapted into a documentary by HBO Films, author Lawrence Wright recounted institutionalized physical and psychological abuse of church members.

Scientology was founded in 1952 by L. Ron Hubbard, a writer of science-fiction novels who melded spirituality and technology into a belief system that relied on scientific principles to guide its followers.

Banks said the new Miami facility is an “ideal” church, which means it is large enough to accommodate non-Scientology gatherings and events.

“Everything in this facility is available for the community to use,” she said. “We want this church to become a hub for Miami, and in addition to our existing drug education, human rights and moral programs, we want people to bring their community initiatives in here and partner with us.”

Monday afternoon, jubilant singing could be heard coming from inside the chapel, where a religious service was being held. People wandered around the building’s main entrance on the fifth floor, viewing videos and perusing books. A working e-meter — a religious Scientology artifact used to help diagnose people’s emotional or mental distress — was on display.

“They are officially considered a religion,” Regalado said. “We cannot say no to something that is protected by the Constitution. They brought a lot of volunteers into the city and we’re always looking for people who want to do something good without asking for anything in return.”

Regalado said he has attended the grand opening or dedications of several churches in the past, including Our Lady of Lebanon in Miami and the Iglesia Adventista de los Peregrinos in Hialeah, but those appearances didn’t receive any media attention.

“Also, there haven’t been that many because churches aren’t like restaurants: A new one doesn’t open every day,” he said. “But I never thought attending the opening of the Church of Scientology would generate much controversy. Maybe if I had cut the ribbon at a massage parlor, people would have questioned that.”