On Wednesday evening, news broke that a 300-person cruise ship had been quarantined at a port in St. Lucia. “The ministry of health is currently investigating a situation involving a cruise ship,” Merlene Fredericks-James, the island nation’s chief medical officer, said in a statement posted to YouTube. “We got information this morning from two sources that there was a confirmed case of measles on board a cruise ship that had visited our island.”
The 440-foot vessel bore the name Freewinds, identifying it as the floating headquarters of the Flag Ship Service Organization—a “religious retreat” that promises a “a safe, aesthetic, distraction-free environment”—owned and operated by the Church of Scientology.
“So yes, the story is true, the Freewinds is in St. Lucia and we’ve been quarantined because a passenger did get diagnosed with the measles,” Scientologist Bernard Bonner wrote in a statement on Facebook, first reported by watchdog website The Underground Bunker. The church did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Passengers aboard the ship had come to take high-level Scientology courses called OT VIII (“Operating Thetan Level 8”), the final step in a wildly expensive training program Scientologists call the “Bridge to Total Freedom” (The Underground Bunker estimated that completing the Bridge could cost members between $500,000 and $2 million). Instead of Total Freedom, passengers wound up with a ruling from the St. Lucia government that no one could disembark from the boat for 21 days.
The quarantine comes at a moment of intense panic surrounding measles outbreaks in the United States. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 704 confirmed cases of measles in 22 states since the start of 2019—78 in the last week alone. “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000,” the government agency declared on its website. The global situation is only more dire: As of March, the World Health Organization had tracked more than 112,000 cases internationally, a 300 percent increase from last year. The majority of the cases involved people who had not been vaccinated, despite scientific consensus that shots can easily prevent the spread of the highly infectious disease.
Relative to other outbreaks, the Scientology quarantine of likely far less than 300 is somewhat small—recently confirmed cases in Los Angeles, for example, resulted in the isolation of more than 1,000 students and employees at UCLA and CalState—but it captures the grim absurdity of the situation. That an anti-vaxx outbreak occurred on a cruise sanctioned by Scientology—another movement known to traffic in fringe pseudoscience fronted by high-profile celebrities, sometimes the same ones—highlights the parallels between the two movements, and the uncanniness of seeing the former gain ground on the national stage.
According to Bonner, the situation began when a U.K. passenger who boarded the vessel last week started experiencing cold symptoms and later, a rash. He claims an on-board doctor administered a blood test, which came back positive for measles, and immediately isolated the woman from the rest of the passengers. “As Scientologists, we follow every law. The woman is now OK and the measles has past [sic],” Bonner said. “We have not been given her identity or whereabouts and none of us care. People ‘Can’ come on the boat but St. Lucia law is not allowing anyone off [sic].”
The Church of Scientology has not officially embraced the anti-vaxx movement, but it has hardly eschewed it either. The church has a history of opposition to the medical field, dating back to the early writings of its founder, L. Ron. Hubbard. “The doctor is a handyman desperately valuable in the specific fields of emergency surgery and repair (as needed after accidents), in obstetrics, in orthopedics and as epidemic police. Further he ceases to be valuable,” Hubbard wrote in a 1954 essay called The Road Up. “The medical profession has prepared its own retreat into the fields where it belongs.”
Among the most visible anti-vaxx advocates is actress Jenna Elfman, a well-known Scientologist who came out against SB-77, a 2015 California bill requiring vaccinations before students enroll in school.
At an anti-vaxx rally in May 2015, Elfman told the crowd that when “You open up the door of taking away parents’ rights, you open the door to a constitutional slippery slope.” In a Facebook post from that year promoting a petition against the bill, Elfman asserted, “There is no health crisis (unless they care to create one— wait for it....).” Danny Masterson, another Scientologist (and one facing multiple accusations of sexual assault; he denies them), circulated the same petition, calling the bill in a tweet “California fascism.” And both Juliette Lewis and Kirstie Alley, also prominent Scientologists, came out against the bill. “NO on SB277...no no no...protect your rights to CHOOSE the vaccines your kids and YOU have...they are NOT all HARMLESS…” Alley wrote. “Ur kids,Ur choice [sic].”
In 2015, the church also co-sponsored an event with the Nation of Islam, inviting environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to speak in protest of SB-77. Kennedy, who has lobbied against vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal on the (widely disproven) grounds that they are linked to autism, took heat that year for likening vaccine programs to a “holocaust.” (He later apologized for the comparison.) At the talk, Kennedy reprised his rant against vaccines, this time aligning them with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
The quarantine isn’t the first time the Freewinds has been shut down by harmful contaminants. The ship, which was purchased by the church in 1985, was forced to stop operations in 2008, when Dutch government health inspectors detected blue asbestos in the ventilation system. At the time, the church denied the findings. But in an interview with watchdog website The Scientology Money Project, former Scientologist Lawrence Woodcraft recalled discovering the asbestos with another member during a renovation.
“He grabs a hammer and he pounds it. He smashes into this wall. I see this blue powdery substance, particles flying. I go, ‘Steve! Stop!’ You know, ‘I’m pretty damn sure that’s asbestos,’” Woodcraft said. “And I’m, like, uh-oh! ’Cause I’ve learned all about asbestos in architecture school. And I go, ‘Uh-oh, you’re releasing it! Let’s do something! Let’s suit it up. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ Like, I’m freaking! A panic mode because I’ve been in factories in England with asbestos. If they find asbestos, they freak out! The whole thing is closed down.”
The ship also came under scrutiny in 2011, when former Scientologist Valeska Paris told The Village Voice that she was held against her will aboard the boat for 12 years in an effort to prevent her from leaving the religion. In the interview, Paris described a situation much like a medical quarantine: “I was put in this small room by myself with a camera monitoring my movements,” she said. “A security guard escorted me anywhere I went, I had to eat in the engine room and was not allowed to eat in the control room because it was air conditioned. I was not allowed to work with anyone so I was alone at all times... I was in the engine room for almost 3 months full time. I hated it and just wanted to get off the Ship, I was of course not allowed to call my family at all or talk to anyone.”
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