Screenwriter-Director Paul Haggis Speaks Out for First Time Since Leaving Church of Scientology

New Yorker writes that issue of same-sex marriage triggered defection.

ByABC News
February 6, 2011, 11:38 PM

Feb. 7, 2011— -- Academy award-winning, screenwriter-director Paul Haggis now calls his former church a "cult" whose stance on a dispute about the issue of same-sex marriage triggered his decision to leave the Church of Scientology, according to an interview in the latest New Yorker magazine.

Speaking publicly for first time since leaving the church in 2009, Haggis also provides a glimpse into the controversial church.

"I was in a cult for 34 years," he told the New Yorker of his time in the church. "Everyone else could see it. I don't know why I couldn't."

Haggis was a practicing Scientologist along with the likes of celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, who remain in the church.

Haggis, who was a screenwriter for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash," which he also directed said Scientology started out for him as something that provided a sense of belonging.

"There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I'd never experienced; all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join," Haggis said in the New Yorker article.

L. Ron Hubbard founded the church in 1952 as a "religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's true spiritual nature and one's relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being," according to the church's website.

There are more than 8,600 churches and missions with millions of members in 165 countries, according to the Church of Scientology website.

"It is unfortunate that The New Yorker chose to introduce its readers to Scientology through the eyes of an apostate, someone religious scholars unanimously denounce as unreliable, rather than take advantage of the Church's invitation to experience its practices and humanitarian works firsthand," the church replied to the article in a statement to ABC News. "The article is little more than a regurgitation of old allegations that have long been disproved. It is disappointing that a magazine with the reputation of The New Yorker chose to reprint these sensationalist claims from disaffected former members hardly worthy of a tabloid."

For Haggis, the church's declining to publicly denounce Proposition 8, the measure that banned same-sex marriages in California, conflicted with his view on the issue and eventually led to his parting ways with the church.

The tension started in 2008, according to the New Yorker, when a staff member at a Scientologist church in San Diego signed the church's name to a pro-Prop. 8 online petition, according to the New Yorker.

Tommy Davis, chief spokesman for the Church of Scientology International, told Haggis at the time that the listing was an error and that the church "avoids taking overt political stands," the magazine wrote.

Haggis said he was vehemently opposed to Prop. 8 because his youngest daughter, Katy, from his first marriage, "lost the friendship of a fellow-Scientologist after revealing that she was gay," according to the New Yorker.

Davis also told the magazine that he told Haggis that Katy's friend ended the friendship not because Katy was "lesbian but because Katy lied about it."

Davis told Haggis that making a public statement on the issue would bring "more attention than if we leave it be," according to the article.

Haggis told Davis in a letter in February 2009 that this wasn't a public relations issue but "a moral issue," later conceding to Davis, however, "You were right: Nothing happened -- it didn't flap -- at least not every much. But I feel we shamed ourselves," the magazine reported.

Six months later, the issue still resonated with Haggis.

"Silence is consent, Tommy. I refuse to consent. I hereby resign my membership in the Church of Scientology," Haggis wrote to Davis in a letter dated Aug. 19, 2009, according to the New Yorker interview.

The New Yorker writes that the incident sparked Haggis' research and exploration of the church beyond official documents.

Haggis looked for information online about the church and read an expose by the St. Petersburg Times that reported allegations of physical violence among church senior executives and other Scientologists, according to the article.