The church, founded by L Ron Hubbard, an American science fiction writer, after the Second World War, has its European headquarters in East Grinstead, West Sussex. It owns a number of large mansions around the town, many more than 100 years old. One communal house burnt down two years ago and since then Mid-Sussex District Council has made regular inspections of cult properties.
The cult has persistently denied overcrowding in any of these communes and says they are fit for human habitation. It has, however, been confirmed that environmental health officers from Mid-Sussex are prosecuting the cult for failing to keep Stonelands, one of its largest communes, safe.
Susan Barton, chief environmental health officer, said the cult had ignored an improvement notice issued last year that called for a number of changes, including better fire safety. She confirmed the council was taking the church to court over fire regulations. The first hearing is expected next month.
A spokesman for the church said the property had passed previous fire inspections but conceded that 'the fire standards can be upgraded; we are in the process of making improvements.'
Ms Barton also confirmed that cult officials had led her during a recent inspection to believe that only about 50 people lived permanently in the main house at Stonelands. According to a document in the possession of the Independent, the total is about 130. The document is a copy of an internal inspection of the premises by cult members on 18 September. In all, there are 190 people listed as living in the main house and in various outhouses, including a boathouse.
Among these are at least 24 children who live in dormitories separate to their parents. The cult official who inspected these rooms noted: 'Smell of wet beds and bleach . . . smell of wet beds needs to be handled.'
Ms Barton, who has asked for a copy of this document, said: 'If I've been misled over the number of people living in the house, obviously this is a matter for considerable concern.'
The church said last night it had not misled the local authority. A spokesman said: 'Maybe a staff member was asked and he said 50 people or something - it might have been said offhandedly.' He said the authorities knew more people lived there.
Mr Hubbard's basic idea was that through a series of 'therapies', an individual could achieve peace of mind and eventually immortality.
Two former cult members, who asked not to be identified, lived for several years in the commune. Both were senior officers in the cult, members of the organisation that administers it.
One said that cult children at Stonelands were encouraged to participate in Scientology. He said his own daughters were encouraged to perform 'Training Routine 0' in which two people stare at each other for prolonged periods of time without moving. They also participate in the 'ethics' system of Scientology, which is another word for discipline. This involves, for instance, informing on friends and parents for having 'bad thoughts' which could include saying something critical of Mr Hubbard.