Why is the Church of Scientology helping antivaxers in a last ditch attempt to block passage of SB 276?

As regular readers know, we’ve been in the midst of a measles epidemic since last year, and it’s been the worst in a generation. As of August 8, the CDC has confirmed 1,182 cases of measles. Contrary to the the way antivaxers like to point to a 50 year old Brady Bunch episode that made light the kids catching the measles and having to stay home from school as evidence that measles isn’t serious, measles can be very serious. The CDC also notes that 124 of the people infected with measles had to be hospitalized, and 64 had complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis. Indeed, the past and present rebuke antivaxers who claim measles is just a mild childhood illness that provides natural immunity. Quite the opposite. Measles actually suppresses the immune system for up to three years or even more, leaving children more susceptible to other diseases. Contributing to these outbreaks has been vaccine hesitancy leading to the failure to vaccinating, leading to areas where vaccine uptake is below the level needed to maintain herd immunity, leading to—you guessed it!—measles outbreaks. To combat this, states have been cracking down on nonmedical exemptions known as “personal belief exemptions” (PBEs). California was the first to do this, passing SB 277 into law and joining Mississippi and West Virginia as a state in which only medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates would be permitted. This brings us to the discussion of another California bill under consideration, SB 276 and the strange involvement of the Church of Scientology in opposing it.

What is SB 276? It’s a successor to SB 277 necessitated by a loophole in SB 277. The greatest flaw in SB 277 is that it permits basically any physician to write a letter claiming a medical exemption to school vaccine mandates for a patient, rather than requiring state oversight to mae sure that only medically valid medical exemptions were granted. Predictably, the antivaccine quacks in California saw this loophole as an opportunity. SB 277 took full effect at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, and for a while things went quite well. Early results showed that SB 277 was working swimmingly. The percentage of children not vaccinated plummeted. There was, however, a troubling sign when the study showing the improvement in vaccine uptake was published two years ago. There was a significant uptick in the medical exemption rate. At the time it was speculated that some of the increase in the medical exemption rate was due to parents of children who did have medical conditions for which a medical exemption was legitimately indicated but had just opted out using a PBE because it was so much easier. Into this morass soon plunged Dr. Bob Sears leading the way teaching parents how to secure medical exemptions for questionable indications. Soon, there was a cottage industry of quacks selling bogus medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, even online. Indeed, in the Bay area five doctors wrote one-third of the medical exemption letters. Last month, it was noted that, for the first time since SB 277 went into effect, vaccination rates in California declined slightly.

In response to these problems, Senator Richard Pan, who co-sponsored SB 277 and was the driving force behind getting it passed, introduced SB 276, a law that would mandate a database of medical exemptions, so that the state can keep track of which doctors are issuing the most medical exemptions, and require that requests for medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates be approved by the State Public Health Officer or designee, who could reject exemptions not supported by science. The bill’s been watered down a bit since then, with amendments removing the provision that would authorize the State Health Officer to review medical exemptions and revoke the ones he deems fraudulent or inconsistent with medical guidelines. On the other hand, the bill would require that the state health department to provide a standardized form for use for medical exemptions:

This bill would instead require the State Department of Public Health, by January 1, 2021, to develop and make available for use by licensed physicians and surgeons an electronic, standardized, statewide medical exemption request that would be transmitted using the California Immunization Registry (CAIR), and which, commencing January 1, 2021, would be the only documentation of a medical exemption that a governing authority may accept. The bill would specify the information to be included in the medical exemption form, including a certification under penalty of perjury that the statements and information contained in the form are true, accurate, and complete. The bill would, commencing January 1, 2021, require a physician and surgeon to inform a parent or guardian of the bill’s requirements and to examine the child and submit a completed medical exemption request form to the department, as specified. By expanding the crime of perjury, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

The bill would also require the department to annually review immunization reports from schools, to identify schools with an overall immunization rate of less than 95%, physicians and surgeons who submitted 5 or more medical exemption forms in a calendar year, and schools and institutions that do not report immunization rates to the department. It would also require a clinically trained staff member who is a physician, surgeon, or a registered nurse to review all medical exemptions meeting these conditions, authorizing the State Public Health Officer to review the exemptions identified by that staff member as fraudulent or inconsistent with established guidelines. The department can report physicians issuing fraudulent or scientifically unjustified medical exemptions to the state medical board.

As was the case with SB 277, as SB 276 has been wending its way through the California legislature and has now reached the point where it looks nearly certain to pass and Governor Gavin Newsom has stated that he would sign it, the antivaccine movement is going nuts:

California’s debate over a proposed law to tighten kids’ exemptions for mandatory vaccines was never subtle.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill say they’ve been receiving death threats for months. Someone in June mailed Assembly members dozens of bricks etched with appeals to kill the measure. On Twitter, celebrities heckle vaccine proponents and each side warns of deadly consequences.

Now, as lawmakers head into the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, anti-vaccine advocates are turning to an out-of-state political operative known for provocative campaigns in a last-ditch effort to undermine a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom has already indicated he’d sign.

More on that out-of-state political operative in a moment. First, I can’t help but point out that I’m more worried this time. I’ve discussed the violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement on more than one occasion. Now, death threats are nothing new. Paul Offit, for instance, has been getting them for a long time. I’ve even gotten the occasional one. I do fell, however, that it’s getting worse. When you have people out their like Del Bigtree saying “now’s the time” for guns and exhorting antivaxers to fight and die for freedom and antivaxers cosplaying a violent fictional terrorist, you have to wonder whether it’s a matter of when, not if, an antivaxer acts on the increasingly intense rhetoric. Sure, the leaders turning up the heat on the rhetoric are never going to actually take up arms, but antivaxers listening to them might.

It’s not just Del Bigtree using overheated rhetoric. It’s the “consultant” brought in by antivaxers in a last ditch effort to block passage of SB 276:

The consultant, Jonathan Lockwood of Oregon, charges that California leaders are ready to “sacrifice children” by compelling more kids to get vaccines through Senate Bill 276.

“Any lawmaker who votes yes on SB 276 will have blood on their hands. It’s up to each of them to decide if they will be accessories to the real human cost of this lethal legislation,” wrote Lockwood. “How much is a life worth? Will lawmakers sacrifice children for political purposes or will they acknowledge and act according to the truth?

He’s supported by an alliance called the Conscience Coalition, which is a national effort founded by California-native Renee Bessone and lobbyist Greg Mitchell. Lockwood is a spokesman for Republican lawmakers in Oregon.

The trio has partnered with groups and families across California to tank Sen. Richard Pan’s measure, which they say will hurt, even kill, children.

But they’re not antivaccine. Oh, no. Don’t call them that. They just think that vaccines hurt and kill children. They just think that school vaccine mandates “sacrifice children.” They just accepted the aid of a political operative with ties to the Church of Scientology who rants that any lawmakers who support vaccine mandates and closing loopholes in those mandates “will have blood on their hands.” But don’t call opposition to SB 276 “antivaccine.”

Here’s the interesting thing that was totally left out of the published story. Jonathan Lockwood is one of the leaders of something called the Conscience Coalition, which appears to be a Scientology front group, as noted by Tony Ortega on his blog a week ago:

The Conscience Coalition is continuing to organize against SB 276, a bill that would require California health officials to monitor doctors and schools that have more than usual rates of medical exemptions from required childhood vaccines. Members are being asked to contact or visit their legislators to oppose the bill.

The Coalition is led by Scientologists Greg Mitchell, Renee Bessone and non-Scientologist Jonathan Lockwood. Its other members appear to all be Scientologists. They have announced two priorities — opposing childhood vaccination and promoting religious freedom.

According to Ortega, Lockwood is not a Scientologist himself. Rather, he’s training Scientologists how to do political activism and to increase their impact by using Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, on Twitter The Real Truther posted this:

The other director of the Conscience Coalition, Greg Mitchell, is a registered lobbyist for the Church of Scientology and apparently received a half a million from the church over the last five years. In another post, Tony Ortega notes that the Conscience Coalition “doesn’t have the official blessing of the church yet, but there’s no doubt they’re well connected with OSA, the Office of Special Affairs, which is responsible for all contact with the world outside Scientology,” and adds this:

With one notable exception the members are entirely Scientologists. Follow any of them on social media and you will find photos from the Freewinds, from Flag Land Base, from Delphian Academy, and from Scientology social reform front groups. The “Chief architect, strategist and lobbyist” of the group is Greg Mitchell, a registered lobbyist for Scientology who received half a million dollars from the church over the last five years. His wife Renee Bessone is listed as the founder and chair of the organization.

The third member of the troika is Jonathan Lockwood, a conservative political operative once described as “flat-out deranged” by The Denver Post editorial board for a 2015 attack ad against U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. We can find no evidence that Lockwood is or ever was a Scientologist. He has been recruited as an ally of Scientology, as described in the policies of L. Ron Hubbard. His views on psychiatry are certainly in line with those of Scientologists.

Why is Scientology apparently assisting the opposition to SB 276? It’s not the first time that I’ve noticed connections between antivaxers and Scientology. For instance, during the battle to get SB 277 passed, Minister Tony Muhammad and the Nation of Islam teamed with antivaxers Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Brian Hooker to rally opposition to SB 277. Later that year, RFK Jr. and Minister Muhammad teamed up to lead a demonstration over vaccines at the CDC. It turns out that the Nation of Islam and its Leader Minister Louis Farrakhan have close ties with the Church of Scientology dating back 15 years:

The alliance between the Nation of Islam, a black organization, and Scientology, an almost entirely white one, was hatched in the mid-Aughts, when the late Isaac Hayes, one of the only famous black Scientologists, approached Scientology leader David Miscavige and asked why the “religion” wasn’t doing more to court black Americans. So Miscavige reached out to the Nation of Islam, and by 2010, they began promoting the “benefits” of Dianetics, the core set of ideas preached by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

During a sermon in Chicago on July 1, 2012, Farrakhan proclaimed to his acolytes, “I found the tool that I know can help us. And I thank God for Mr. L. Ron Hubbard. And I thank God for his research and teaching.”

So, again, why is the Church of Scientology sending some of its heavy hitters to assist the antivaccine movement in California? Tony Ortega notes in a post that he used to say that, although the Church of Scientology doesn’t speak out against vaccines but that because of L. Ron Hubbard’s hatred for the American Medical Association and his disrespect for doctors in general, many Scientologists do tend to be suspicious of western medicine, seek out alternative therapies, “and yes, many of them are anti-vaccination.” In the past, he used to say that he didn’t think the Church was antivaccine, but now:

But now, we think we might have to adjust our answer when that question comes up in the future, because increasingly it does look like the church itself is engaging in the anti-vaxx panic, and goading it along. Why? We’re not sure.

In the same post, Ortega observes that Greg Mitchell attended that antivaccine meeting in Rockland County, NY and even spoke there. He asked former high ranking members of the Church, such as Amy Scobee, about it:

We told her that we’ve been pointing out to other reporters that although the church doesn’t express an anti-vaxx position, Hubbard’s anti-doctor diatribes have produced Scientologists who are skeptical of western medicine, including vaccines.

She agreed with that, and pointed out that in her 20 years at Int Base, she never saw Sea Org members getting vaccines or being given the time off to get them.

As for what’s been going on lately with Scientology seemingly getting involved in anti-vaxx activities, she admits to being as bewildered as we are.

But she says that Lucy Cole’s activities wouldn’t be happening if it hadn’t been approved by Scientology, and specifically with oversight by the Office of Special Affairs, Scientology’s secret police.

Lucy Cole is a Scientology Operating Thetan VIII, the highest current auditing level in Scientology. She’s been helping the Nation of Islam coordinate their antivaccine activities and is frequently seen with Minister Muhammad (who, it turns out, is also a Scientologist) at antivaccine events.

No one, not ex-Scientologists who continue to monitor their former church nor those who study Scientology, seems to know why the Church of Scientology is increasingly insinuating itself into the antivaccine movement or why it is sending resources to California for a last ditch effort to stop the passage of SB 276. Whatever they are, they can’t be good. The Church is playing with fire, too. Given theincreasingly violent rhetoric from antivaxers opposing SB 276 and how Jonathan Lockwood is echoing overheated rhetoric similar to what Del Bigtree has been laying down, I fear that it wouldn’t take much to inspire someone to take action.

Of course, one obvious reason Scientology is courting antivaxers could simply be to recruit them. The Church has been suffering from declining membership for several years now, and could actually be desperate enough to see antivaxers as recruits who might reverse that decline. Antivaxers tend to be suspicious of medicine and, like Scientologists, extremely hostile to psychiatry, particularly behavioral treatments for autism and psych meds for ADHD. They’re predisposed to be receptive to Scientology’s message. Only the leadership of Scientology knows for sure why the Church is becoming cozier and cozier with antivaxers.