Buffalo's Church of Scientology, soon to be forced from its downtown church for a new city parking ramp, turned to Erie County prison inmates to help get its new Main Street home ready.
A crew of six inmates from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and guarded by corrections officers, spent the last month helping with interior renovations in the new Scientology Church at Main and Virginia streets.
The inmate crew arrived before 8 a.m. each day in a prison van, worked all day gutting the former Buffalo Catholic Institute, a handsome ivory-colored stone and brick building at 828 Main St., and then returned to the prison.
Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan, questioned Thursday by The Buffalo News about a government agency providing free labor to a church, removed the prison crew from the building several hours later.
"He decided to pull them until they resolve this," said Mary Murray, a spokeswoman for the sheriff.
Gallivan earlier told The News that, while he had a firm policy that prison crews could only provide labor to county departments and non-profit groups, he had never thought about the longtime tradition of separating church and state.
"Now that the issue is raised, we will immediately look at it," Gallivan said. "It's just something we hadn't considered, and it's apparent we should have."
The county's assistance comes after a Scientology benefactor and church member financed a trip to inspect Mexican prisons for H. McCarthy Gibson, the county's top jail administrator, and one of his deputy superintendents, Robert Huggins.
Gibson said they took the trip in October 2001 to look at a Scientology anti-drug program being used in Mexican prisons that he thought might work here. It was never begun at the county prison.
Gallivan said he was not aware the trip was financed by a Scientology Church member. But he said helping the church renovate its new home was unrelated, suggested by a West Seneca insurance agent impressed by the prison crew's work on another project.
"I think it's an outstanding program," the sheriff said of the prison's Service Assistance Corps. "We're providing a service to the community and the inmates are doing something productive with their time, rather than just sitting there."
The Rev. Mary Lou Reile, the Church of Scientology's director of special affairs in Buffalo, said she was concerned that publicity over the prison crew's work would overshadow her church's efforts against drugs and its other social programs.
"We want to be a real asset to the community," she said. "We want to help clean up the blight on Main Street and be a real asset to the Allentown neighborhood."
Describing itself as the world's fastest growing religion with 8 million members, Scientology was begun in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who compiled his beliefs in a best-selling work called "Dianetics."
The church has attracted a number of Hollywood stars, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and others, but it also has drawn a vocal opposition that has accused the church of being a cult.
Reile said the local Scientology church has 400 local members but a mailing list of 19,000 as the largest Church of Scientology in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
The Internal Revenue Service designated Scientology a church for tax purposes a decade ago.
That's enough for Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a lobby group in Washington, D.C.
"Houses of worship should be built by private donations without any help from government at all," he said.
He said a similar situation was discovered two years ago in Florida, where a county sheriff had jail inmates cleaning local churches.
"The American Civil Liberties Union raised a fuss, the sheriff asked the Florida Association of Sheriffs for an opinion, and they said no," Boston said.
The Church of Scientology's move was forced by the city wanting to expand the Owen P. Augspurger Parking Ramp by demolishing the church's home, the four-story Hurst building at 47 W. Huron St.
Church officials, as well as local preservationists, objected to demolishing a sound, intact building, and the church filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
That suit was dropped in early December after the city, which had initially offered the church $425,000, agreed to pay $740,000 for the building.
The Scientologists then paid $300,000 in January for the Main Street building, constructed in 1893 by the Buffalo Catholic Institute, a group of German-American Catholics who used it for religious research and lectures.
The building has seen a number of uses since, including state offices, but has been vacant in recent years.
Gibson, the county's chief prison administrator, said the inmates working on the building were model prisoners who are considered prison trustees. He said there were no sex offenders or violent offenders among them.
"It's an inmate works program," he said. "These are people who have never had an opportunity to work before. We designed the Service Action Corps to do some non-profit community related projects."
"If you can teach them something they can utilize for the rest of their lives," he said, "when they get out, they can support their family and their lifestyle."
Other prison crews, he said, have helped clean up county parks, a local cemetery, helped shovel out downtown fire hydrants after major snowstorms, and are helping construct a West Seneca golf course as part of the Tiger Woods' First Tee program.
Gibson said the trip to Mexico that he and Huggins took allowed them to see a Scientology Second Chance drug program that uses long sessions in a sauna with large doses of vitamins and minerals.
"It was a holistic program involving saunas and a vitamin regimen that actually purged the toxins out of your body," he said.
Gibson said he had hoped to start a pilot program involving the Scientology methods here, but said prison administrators have not had time to do it.
A Scientology benefactor had agreed to fly 23 members of the Nevada State Legislature to see the program, but the trip was called off after a legislative leader said the program was scientifically invalid and called the free trip "inappropriate."
Reile said volunteers come from all over the state to help work on the building and said the church hopes to move in by May 1.
Richard L. Ogorek Jr., the city's deputy commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services, called that hope optimistic. He said the city has issued two building permits for the work so far, but said the third permit will not be issued until the church submits a detailed set of plans and drawings.
"That building deserves everything we can do for it," Reile said. "We will have a place where people can come. We will have literacy programs, Sunday services, weddings and funerals."
She said the basement will house exercise equipment and saunas similar to the Second Chance drug prison program, and the top floor will have 27 counseling rooms. There is a large auditorium that she said will be used for community events.
Elizabeth Licata, president of the Allentown Association, said her group welcomes the Scientologists to the neighborhood.
"From my point of view," she said, "we're happy to see a good tenant for any of these abandoned buildings on Main Street."