Scientology Wins Major Court Ruling

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

24 thoughts on “Scientology Wins Major Court Ruling”

  1. Several things surprised me about this decision:

    a. The Judge assumes Scientology is a religion

    b. The judge assumes there was no brainwashing (in the Wollersheim case, the App Div made this finding)

    c. The decision seems to find that 100 hour work weeks, sleep deprivation, etc. are part of this religion (and thus is protected as a matter of law)–maybe she is technically correct, but what a PR disaster for the Cult if they have to rely on this!

    d. The Court talks about entanglement–that is a concept for the Establishment Clause (primary secular purpose, primary secular effect, and no potential for entanglement) not the Free expression clause.

    Established precedents say that the first amendment does not protect conduct which endangers health and safety of the public (Sherbert v. Verner, Reynolds); that, to be religious, a claim must hold itself out as such, rather than being a therapeutic claim (Founding Church of Scientology v US).

    IMO, you cannot express your first amendment rights in a manner that prevents others from practicing their first amendment rights (eg deceiving them into joining or coercing them from leaving).

  2. Why then wouldn’t the same principal apply to Warren Jeffs? Was he not operating in a “Ministerial” capacity according to their church doctrine?

  3. And I say it again….

    When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
    ~Friedrich Nietzsche

  4. I hope other religions understand the far reaching implications of this flawed court decision.

    Specifically, who, in their right mind, would now want to “volunteer” to work at any church???

    I certainly wouldn’t, knowing that my individual civil rights could be swept away in a heart beat by any judge. A judge (who instead of protecting my rights) decides to sweep any criminal activity, however heinous, under the rug. Using the feeble excuse of “separation of church and state”.

    Come to think of it…….this ruling could, just as easily, be extended to include any church member sitting in a congregation.

    Chilling….isn’t it?

  5. Well,

    The IRS had better expand its staff exponentially to handle all of the new applications (for tax exempt churches) it’s going to be receiving as a result of this incredibly STUPID ruling.

    Now any gang (or criminal organization) will realize, all they have to do is put a cross on their front door, and the word “church” in their name…..and presto……instant immunity from all crimes. Better than hitting the lotto!!!!

    Oh wait……that’s what Scientology has been doing for decades!!!!

  6. the dividing line between an unlawful act and a religious rite is how many people subscribe to the religion. David Koresh just didn’t have enough followers.

  7. So, I can just set up a religious institution with a bunch of bizarre tenets and get away scot-free for behavior that would otherwise be criminal because it’s a tenet of my religious belief? What is the standard for being recognized as a religious institution for the purposes of 1st Amendment protection? Would Westboro Baptist Church be eligible? Satanism?

    I agree this whole “hands off religion” issue is interesting. I think a lot of these big box churches are probably violating the tax code re 501(c)(3) exemption, but the IRS is too terrified of a stink to look into it.

  8. Mike,

    Me too. I was shocked at the amount of deference given to the Church. No matter how frustrated I get at the deference groups of Christians are sometimes given in the U.S., they don’t usually include allegations like the ones in this case. I’m hopeful that this can get reversed on appeal.

  9. Hm, looks like the Catholic Church has a simple solution to its own dilemma: the Pope declares sex with minors to be a tenant of the faith. Presto!

  10. Judge Fischer is of the apparent opinion that assault, battery, kidnapping and extortion, provided that they are doctrinally based, are not actionable wrongs under the so-called “ministerial exception.” The language in the memorandum opinion is so sweeping that it even precludes inquiry into the bona fides of the doctrinal defenses. The court’s conclusion is logically absurd and contrary to any common sense understanding of human experience. I will be more than a bit surprised should it survive an appeal.

  11. I find it disturbing that an organization such as Scientology can deny a citizen his or her basic constitutional rights without any fear or prosecution or liability based on the single fact that it claims to be a religious organization.

  12. “Ricardo Cabeza” Is that your real name? If not,it’s a great joke! Congratulations! I’m still laughing.

  13. Mr. Turley, thank you so much for writing about this.

    As a former member of this church, I can’t express how disheartened I was to read of Judge Fischer’s ruling. The fact that the sheer abuse and denial of constitutional rights that the Headleys experienced at the hands of the church they had worked so hard and so long for was completely ignored by Fischer is abominable. It makes me wonder who in the organization greased the wheels to get this case heard by Fischer. What’s next? Murder charges dismissed by the First Amendment?

  14. Comment #: 6268
    Rating:Not Rated
    Consistently biased in favor of corporate defendants and the government, and writes opinions that disguise her biases better than some of her other very conservative colleagues.

    Comment #: 6117
    Judge Fischer, though smart and focused, is, in my opinion, one of the most biased judges I’ve come across. I echo the other write-up: she’s heartless. She went out of her way to accomodate the government in a FTCA case, and I would recommend caution to anyone who steps in her courtroom, representing either a private litigant against the United States or a criminal defendant. I lost some faith in the system after crossing her path. I hestitated to write this, but felt that this had to be said. Again, this is simply my opinion.

  15. “The Court brushes aside such allegations as part of a church that Headley joined voluntarily.”

    Are churches now like the U S Military. One may join voluntarily but one may not leave voluntarily?

  16. I find this opinion disturbing for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is the manner in which the trial court effectively ignores controlling authority such as Employment Division v. Smith in devising its bizarre theory that mere claims of religiosity automatically insulate one’s money-making business from “neutral laws of general applicability.

    While I am not certain that the court could not have reached dismissal based on some other theory (at least the human trafficking claims in the suit are somewhat novel), labor laws that are generally applicable apply to businesses operated by religions. Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor.

    Since the state labor law claims are under state law, the federal court should have applied the applicable case law. Instead, the previous opinion is glib and superficial and, as this one, simply accepts a claim of religiosity as establishing an unrebuttable presumption of absolute immunity to all laws.

    While there are some exceptions and carve-outs to labor laws, which allow religious groups to engage in purely religious activity without paying minimum wage, these are not immunities so much as activities which are simply not regulated by the laws in question. The court’s (previous) opinion is virtually devoid of any analysis of these issues and essentially simply ignores them.

  17. I was reading/skimming the code yesterday about cosmetic surgery after an augmentation to clear up scars. Apparently this is remedial (scar tissue) and therefor not deductible under section 502.

    The reason I bring this up is the Church of Scientology was named…in a number of different articles….Think Clearwater, Florida and the special unit of the PD to monitor the Church…

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