USC denies campus religious leader sent letter of support for Scientology

The Church of Scientology said a USC senior fellow told its members he supported their activism

Questions remain as to whether a prominent South Los Angeles reverend and USC religious leader really wrote a letter to a TV executive condemning a show critical of the Church of Scientology.

USC officials have repeatedly denied Cecil Murray, a senior fellow of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and chair of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, penned a letter to Disney executives in December calling one of the network's shows, which is critical of Scientology, one-sided and "hateful towards several religions." But a Church of Scientology spokesperson disputes USC's claim and told Annenberg Media that Murray not only wrote the letter but also told church members he did.

The letter written on USC letterhead first circulated on blogs in December and was addressed to Bob Iger, Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company (Iger is the husband of Willow Bay, dean of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism). The letter asked Iger to "stop this hate-mongering" allegedly caused by A&E Network's Scientology reality series, "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath."

The reality-style show speaks to former members of the Church of Scientology and others who say they lost contact with relatives who joined the faith. The show is critical of the church's practices, and the show's host, Leah Remini, alleges she is a victim of a campaign of intimidation waged by Scientologists.

The disputed letter to Iger said, "I understand that the Church of Scientology has had hundreds of threats of death, violence or vandalism incited by the show," and "… Disney makes itself a party to the violence resulting."

An A&E spokesperson told Annenberg Media that Disney is aware of the letter and the company is "enormously proud of this Emmy award-winning show and we believe the quality of the show speaks for itself."

The incident first came to light when a fan of the show complained to the university about the letter sent to Disney. Brenda Maceo, USC's VP of Marketing and PR, responded to the fan that Murray was not the author. She added the university is "looking into the misuse of the university's trademark," citing issues with an outdated logo on the letterhead and a misspelling of the name of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.

In a separate statement, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement said Murray and the organizations he is affiliated with, "have not and will not take any position on the network's programming."

Megan Sweas, editor and director of communications for USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture added in an email to Annenberg Media, "we are aware of both letters, and he is not the author of either letter."

The Church of Scientology spokesperson, Karin Pouw, contradicted the statement from USC representatives in an email and wrote, "Rev. Murray confirmed to us his original letter to Disney."

Pouw noted that a version of the letter on the First AME Church of Los Angeles letterhead, a church Murray was a pastor for 27 years, is available on the website of a Scientologist advocacy group called Scientologist Take Action Against Discrimination.

"To avoid any misinterpretation, intentional or otherwise, that could be used to detract from his message, Rev. Murray's office sent a new copy of his letter to Bob Iger on his own personal letterhead," Pouw said.

Sweas said that the letter Pouw refers to remains on the website without Murray's authorization.

Despite the current controversy, Murray has expressed support for the Church of Scientology in the past. When Murray spoke at the dedication of a Church of Scientology in Inglewood in 2016, he called L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, "an architect of the soul and a designer of dreams."

Pouw also provided photos she said depict Murray leading a Jan. 29 event in association with the LA Faith Coalition of California, an advocacy organization that focuses solely on the condemning "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath."

But Sweas said that just because Murray attended the meeting, "his presence does not indicate he condones their goals."

On Wednesday, USC denied allegations in a Feb. 19 report by the Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion website, that the university is investigating whether "the Church of Scientology may have forged a letter from one of its professors."

Sweas told Annenberg Media, "there's nothing new going on here."

Barbara Rasin and Lauren Teruya contributed to this report