The Church of Scientology has defended the use of NSW schoolchildren in an ad promoting the church, as the self-described "advanced organisation" goes on a marketing drive following the opening of its $37 million Asia-Pacific headquarters on Sydney's north shore.
The children, from Newtown's Athena School appeared in advertisement for the church alongside their principal Fiona Milne in July.
Schools associated with the Church of Scientology are receiving large portions of state funding in comparison with state schools. In this promotional video produced by the church, Sydney school principal Fiona talks about what Scientology means for her and her students.
In the ad Mrs Milne said she "wasn't going to let children suffer how I'd suffered in the classroom", so she implemented the "clear" teaching techniques of L. Ron Hubbard in the classroom. Mrs Milne declined to comment on whether the school had obtained parental permission for the ad.
The church has strenuously maintained the school and the church are separate organisations. The school teaches the "Way to Happiness" philosophy of Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard, but does not disclose that philosophy's link to the church on any promotional material.
Vicki Dunstan, the church's Australian president said: "To suggest that the school's independence is undermined in anyway [by the ad] is preposterous."
In July, Fairfax Media revealed schools associated with the Church of Scientology were receiving more government funding per student than hundreds of Australian public schools, despite benefiting from generous private donations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in school fees.
The "meet a Scientologist" series is part of the church's wider marketing push to counter negative perceptions of the organisation in the wake of damaging revelations in a book by ABC journalist Steve Cannane ( I recommend that book) and Louis Theroux's documentary My Scientology Movie.
Since opening in September, the church has flung open its doors at its Asia-Pacific headquarters in leafy Chatswood. It is due to host family barbecues next week with non-Scientologists as it looks to expand its footprint in Australia.
An Operating Thetan is a Scientologist who has reached its highest state, according to the church's doctrine.
Housed in the site of the former National Acoustics Laboratory, the headquarters have been given a multimillion dollar face lift, resplendent with hundreds of tributes to the church's founder L. Ron Hubbard, marble floors and well stocked with books written by Hubbard covered in volcanoes.
Sei Kato, a member of the advanced organisation who volunteers at the church seven days a week said the media's treatment of the church "had been vicious".
Ms Dunstan said the church was experiencing the greatest expansion time in its history. It frequently disputes figures that shows just 2163 called themselves Scientologists in the last census in 2011.
"The church internationally has grown more in the past five years than it has in the previous 50," she said. "Our parishioners and staff are absolutely loving our new church and the surrounding grounds in Chatswood."
But neighbours remain concerned about the impact of the church on house prices and perceptions of the community.
"It's very weird, the ANZO buses come and they all march down the street in black at 8:30 in the morning before leaving at 11:30 at night," said a neighbour who asked only to be referred to as Karen.
"They are entitled to their beliefs, they've been very welcoming, knocked on doors and invited us over," she said.
"My partner is worried about house prices, but I think maybe rich Scientologists might buy in the area instead, so we might be lucky," she said.