The Church of Scientology won a major victory in federal court when U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer granting summary judgment in two major lawsuits alleging labor law violations, human trafficking and forced abortions. The opinion raises some interesting questions over the deference shown by courts in such disputes.
Two of the litigants, Claire and Marc Headley, detailed how they allegedly worked as virtual slaves for Scientology as part of the organization’s super secret Sea Organization. They left Scientology in 2005.
Fisher found that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause protected the church and that it was also protected by the “ministerial exception” afforded religious groups in employment cases. It is a fascinating ruling since the Court essentially declined to delve into the claims in deference to the protections afforded to churches.
The Court was unwilling to access “the reasonableness of the methods” used to discipline Sea Org members and to prevent them from leaving. Even Claire Headley’s allegation that she was forced to have two abortions was treated as a matter of religious doctrine since “inquiry into these allegations would entangle the court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally motivated practices of the Sea Org.”
What is striking about the decision is the virtual total defense afforded to the church. It is hard to see how any allegation would be considered on its merits under this approach. The forced abortion allegation and allegations of being followed and harassed is particularly problematic since such claims involve potential criminal conduct. Clearly a church cannot countenance criminal acts. In the opinion, the judge acknowledges that Claire Headley alleges that she was tracked down after “escaping” a handler who was assigned to her to keep her from fleeing. The Court brushes aside such allegations as part of a church that Headley joined voluntarily. However, abuse cannot be simply treated as a matter of consent. Indeed, these doctrines have not prevented the Catholic Church from being sued civilly or investigated criminally. The Catholic Church of course admitted that such abuse was not part of its religious tenets. Here, by claiming that such practices were intertwined with their religious beliefs, the Church was able to shutdown the lawsuit.
Here is the Court’s view of the ministerial exception in its earlier partial summary judgment ruling:
“The interplay between the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses creates an exception to an otherwise fully applicable statute if the statute would interfere with a religious organization’s employment decisions regarding its ministers.” . . .
Here, even if Plaintiff could establish the alleged federal and state labor law violations, there is no dispute that she: (1) was employed by a religious institution; [*9] (2) was chosen for her position based largely on religious criteria; and (3) performed religious duties and responsibilities. She worked for Defendants, which both are institutions within the Church of Scientology. She also was able to hold the positions she had with Defendants based largely on religious criteria, namely her commitment to 1,000,000,000 years of service to Scientology and the lifestyle constraints that come with being a member of the Sea Org. See 598 F.3d 668, id. 2010 WL 917200, *6 (deciding this factor was met where plaintiff was in a job available only to seminarians of the Catholic Church). Finally, as part of her duties, she performed various religious duties and responsibilities, most notably “auditing” and “cramming.” For these reasons, the Court finds that the undisputed material facts show that even if Plaintiff could convince a finder of fact that the alleged federal and state labor violations took place, the ministerial exception would apply. Thus, her first cause of action fails.
The Court is clearly correct that the ministerial exception is constitutionally mandated. Moreover, the Court is correct in noting the danger of such inquiries into religious practices. Various churches are openly hostile to abortions and seek to pressure people not to have abortions. This church is hostile to having children if you are a member of the Sea Org. The Court clearly did not want to venture into such a religiously sensitive debate.
However, in its final opinion, the Court goes little further than suggesting that harsh punishment, tracking, and threats are all part of what makes Scientology . . . well . . . Scientology. There appear few limiting principles in the opinion. Whether or not one considers Scientology a cult, it is hard to see how a cult could ever be sued under this sweeping approach. If Scientology did harass or track former members after they left the Church, it would seem to be a matter outside of the ministerial exception.
In this case, the plaintiffs were suing pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which the Court found was trumped by the religious elements in the case. That would seem to open a very large hole in the Act for people who claim a religious foundation for their conduct. The ultimate decision, however, turned on the broad application of the ministerial exception as opposed to the language of the statute.
Here is the opinion: scientology decision
Many years ago I wrote a law review article entitled Laying Hands on Religious Racketeers that discussed the reluctance of courts and prosecutors to enforce secular laws against religious organizations. It may be time for a new law review article on the subject.
This could raise some interesting appellate issues.
Source: Tampa Bay