The Manhattan borough president campaign of Margarita Lopez was knocked off stride this week by a one-two punch—from the right and the left as it were—about ties between the Lower East Side lesbian city councilwoman and the Church of Scientology.
In a series of three stories and an editorial that began Monday, the New York Post reported that Lopez was the key City Council player in securing $630,000 in city funds for the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, a center on Fulton Street that offers September 11 first responders treatments based on large amounts of Vitamin B-3, sauna baths and exercise, in lieu of traditional medical therapies. The treatment is based on theories developed by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's late founder. Tom Cruise, Scientology's most famous exponent, was on hand with Lopez for the center's groundbreaking.
The Post reported that the treatment is widely dismissed by medical professionals and noted that the adverse public reaction led the firefighters' union to pull its support for the project.
Lopez's campaign has collected nearly $115,000 in contributions—more than one quarter of the total amount of money raised—from sources that the Post said were linked to Scientology, including $38,000 garnered at a Florida fund-raiser in January hosted by a Church of Scientology affiliate, just one month after the first half of the city's appropriation was secured by the detoxification center.
Though the Lopez campaign provided a written statement to Gay City News on the matter, it declined to respond when asked if it disputed any of these factual assertions made by the Post.
Even as the Post charged in a Wednesday editorial that the relationship between Lopez and the Scientologists represented a "quid pro cult"—citing an e-mail it uncovered from a church member who urged other members to contribute to a campaign that "will definitely pay big dividends"—one of Lopez's opponents, Brian Ellner, an attorney who is also openly gay, was demanding that she clarify the issues raised by her support for the treatment center.
"It is a question of transparency. It is a question of a clear public good. Most importantly, I should point out that we are not jumping to conclusions," said David Meadvin, Ellner's campaign manager. "What Councilmember Lopez owes voters and the public is a clear explanation of why she supported this project. From the Post's reporting, there is a suggestion of a connection between the campaign collections and the disbursement of public monies."
For her part, Lopez hotly denies any wrongdoing, while standing behind her support for the treatment.
"Every penny donated to my campaign has been legal and ethical, and has been sanctioned by the Campaign Finance Board," Lopez said in a written statement provided to Gay City News. "In the aftermath of September 11th, I made every effort I could to support the needs of first responders and the people of downtown. Many of my constituents as well as officers of the New York City Fire Department came to me urging my support of the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project. They believed then and continue to believe, that it has improved their quality of life."
Noting that on the Council she has supported many "faith-based institutions" providing social services, Lopez wrote, "The religious beliefs of individuals who donate to my campaign are not my concern, and are protected by the Constitution of this country. I am not a member of any church or religion."
Meadvin described Lopez's lack of concern about Scientology's teachings "an absurd and unfortunate response," especially given the homophobia in early Scientology literature that Hubbard wrote in the 1950s.
In "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," Hubbard referred to gays and lesbians as "sexual perverts" who are "actually quite ill physically." A year later, in 1951, in "Science of Survival," he wrote that gays should be "taken from the society as rapidly as possible and uniformly institutionalized."
However, Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology of New York, told Gay City News that the group does not discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and provided a "Proclamation on Religion, Human Rights and Society" issued in 2003 by the Church of Scientology International. The four-page document discusses human dignity and rights in considerable detail, but does not specifically address sexual orientation.
Speaking for his candidate, Meadvin said, "Brian Ellner, someone who has spent his life fighting for equal rights for gay people, for women and for people of color, would not as a person or in his public role support a group like this with a clear history of statements or doctrines that don't fit with his belief system."
When asked whether Pope Benedict XVI's harsh condemnation of gay rights would preclude Ellner's support for public monies going to Catholic Charities, Meadvin replied, "He has no blanket policy. When public money goes to Catholic Charities for caring for homeless children, there is no other agenda than caring for homeless children."
At least two other prominent Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, have written letters in support of the detoxification program's efforts. Those letters earned the two widespread scorn from Web bloggers who track events surrounding a church they view as a cult.
The Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay rights group that has endorsed Council Speaker Gifford Miller for mayor but has not yet made an endorsement in the borough president's race, declined comment on the Scientology matter.