'Indoctrination': Questions over Church of Scientology's free English lessons

Questions have been raised over free English lessons offered by the Church of Scientology in Auckland. 

Some on social media website Reddit, where a screenshot of the ad was posted, have likened the free service to "indoctrination". Others suggested those needing English lessons would likely be vulnerable migrants. 

The free English lessons have been advertised on eventfinda.co.nz, with learning sessions listed as taking place throughout November. 

"Come and learn the Basics of studying English and find out how to learn English quickly and easily," the event's description says, adding that refreshments and free parking will be available at the Grafton Rd address.  

Church of Scientology New Zealand spokesperson Gaylene Fraser says it's "quite common" for religious organisations or community groups to provide free community services for the public.

"Auckland City is very multi-ethnic and it is important for the residents to be able to communicate in English, to be more able to contribute to and interact with their local community," she told Newshub.

"The Church of Scientology of New Zealand offers various services to the community, often through our volunteers, such as human rights education, drug -abuse prevention through education, and moral education.

"These services are provided free of charge, as we believe it is our role to help the community."

A 'controversial movement'

Otago University Professor Gregory Dawes says Scientology is a "very controversial movement", telling Newshub there has "been a lot of discussion about whether it should qualify as a religion, because religions often enjoy certain privileges in law like tax exemption". 

The church faced controversy in September after it was revealed Auckland ratepayers would foot the bill to promote tours of the church as it opened its doors as part of the Auckland Heritage Festival.  

"We tend to think of religions as doing good things, but of course, not all aspects of religion are good," said Prof Dawes, when pressed on his thoughts of the criticism.   

"The problem is when people say, 'This is a religion, therefore it must be a good thing', but that doesn't follow at all," he added. 

"There are many ways in which religious groups try to attract people to events in the hope that they'll be converted, and I guess Scientology is no different in this respect."

Massey University Professor Peter Lineham says the Government should be providing more ways to help new migrants learn English, who are often relatives of someone who earned the right to live in New Zealand. 

Migrants need to be able to hold a basic conversation in English to get New Zealand citizenship, according to Government regulations. Those who apply by post need to send something with the application that proves they can speak English.  

The Government only provides help to find English language courses on its immigration website. Unitec, for example, offers free English classes taught by Certificate in Language Teaching students in small group settings.

"I think it would be outrageous to say [the Church of Scientology] are doing anything wrong [by offering free classes], but they ought, of course, like everybody, to be very careful not to pray on people who are vulnerable," said Prof Lineham. 

Prof Dawes agreed that religious groups should tread carefully. Often, he said, religious groups "trade on the fact that a lot of students, especially when they're not from [New Zealand], are feeling a bit lonely and vulnerable and could be susceptible to influence.

"There may be things that we disapprove of ethically, the same way people disapprove of the actions of other religious groups, but people do things that I disagree with all the time."

Ex-Scientologists have claimed the church makes it difficult for people to leave the group. Ex-scientologist Glenda Smith, who used to do PR for the church, told Newshub allegations of human rights abuses have been raised, which it denies. 

"There are enormous controversies about people trying to leave Scientology," Prof Dawes told Newshub. "Once you're deeply involved in the group... it can be very difficult to get out."

"Ideally, you should be able to go along, get what you want, and move along from it," said Prof Lineham of the free English lessons. "But that's not always the case."

He said the most significant barrier for most migrants becoming members of the Church of Scientology is that it would "expect very considerable financial expectations". 

"I know that quite a lot community groups in churches are doing this, so it's not as though Scientology is the only group doing this. But of course, Scientology has a lot more resources to put into it than others.

"One may not like this, but it's not illegal."