Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Church lawyer tells judge: 'Only Scientology law applies'

CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology, defending itself against a $35,000 refund claim, told a Pinellas judge Friday that the courts cannot meddle in its religious affairs.

Citing the First Amendment as it has in numerous court cases, the church told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer that two former parishioners from Seattle must submit to an internal Scientology arbitration procedure to get any money back.

Bert Schippers and Lynne Hoverson, longtime Scientologists who left the church in 2009, sued two of the church's Clearwater entities in November after they requested their money back and didn't receive it.

As is common in Scientology, Schippers left the money "on account" with the church to pay later for spiritual counseling. But he never used it.

The church argues the couple first must submit to "binding religious arbitration" as laid out in a standard church contract Schippers signed before giving the money. The contract calls for a panel of three Scientologists in good standing to decide what would be fair.

Schippers' lawyer, Brian Leung of Tampa, told Schaefer the arbitration process is inherently unfair because Schippers and Hoverson are estranged from the church and considered "suppressive." Scientologists in good standing consider them heretics. The three-member internal panel would be unlikely to give them a fair hearing, Leung said.

The contract Schippers signed — the same one signed by all Scientologists before taking services — is extreme and unenforceable, Leung said.

Church lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater said none of that matters. Numerous courts have held that the First Amendment shields religions from judicial intrusion. To rule on the merits of the contract, Schaefer would have to entangle himself in religious issues, Pope said.

He argued: "Only Scientology law applies."

Pope also said the law does not require charitable organizations to return donations.

"A gift once made cannot be revoked by the donor," he said, citing Florida case law.

Even so, Scientology has a process for returning donations, Pope said.

He argued that Schippers would have his money back by now if he had completed that process, which requires parishioners to get signatures on a "routing form" from several church officials.

Schippers started the process more than a year ago but sent the church an incomplete routing form in January 2011.

"The whole goal of this form is to get you back into services at the church," Schippers said. "Therefore, it's incompleteable."

He and Hoverson were among several former church members featured in a recent Tampa Bay Times series "The Money Machine," which detailed Scientology's aggressive and intimidating money-raising practices.

Schaefer said he will rule on the issue later this month.

In contrast to the church's stance Friday in Pinellas, it is asking a Texas court to get involved in an internal matter there. It wants the court to force a former church executive to abide by a confidentiality agreement she signed with the church in 2007.

The church last week sued Debbie Cook, the highest ranking church official in Clearwater for 17 years, saying she violated the agreement on New Year's Eve when she questioned church management in an email to fellow Scientologists.

A key hearing in that case is scheduled for Thursday in San Antonio, Texas.

Joe Childs can be reached at Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at

Church lawyer tells judge: 'Only Scientology law applies' 02/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 3, 2012 9:38pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Gay, black leaders speak about finding their place


    When Lillian Dunlap moved to Florida at age 52 in 1999 she could finally breathe. The journalism professor from the University of Missouri and the University of Indiana hadn't been able live openly as a gay woman until then. She had considered coming out before but never did.

    Terri Lipsey Scott (standing) welcomed panelists Bob Devin Jones, Desmond Clark, Lillian Dunlap, Trevor Pettiford and Sheree Greer. Moderator Nadine Smith not pictured.
  2. Bar review: Les Partners Lounge goes old-school in Clearwater

    Bars & Spirits

    There are some local places that I'm shocked aren't more well known, and I think that's the result of a general aversion to stepping out of one's comfort zone. I make regular concerted efforts to step outside of mine, which often leads me to strange and rewarding drinking establishments.

    Les Partners Lounge is an old-school, smoker-friendly cocktail lounge and live music venue tucked away in a nondescript shopping plaza in Island Estates.
  3. Local craft beer of the week: Plongeur a L'eponge, Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.

    Bars & Spirits

    Tarpon Springs' Saint Somewhere Brewing Co. has a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to wild ale brewing, utilizing an open brewing approach involving uncovered fermenters in order to brew beer with local ambient microbes, reminiscent in some ways to the fermentation techniques used by rustic farmhouse breweries in Belgium …

     Plongeur a?€š€™L?ˆš??ponge, Saint Somewhere Brewing Company, 6/23/17  Electric Chair Sour Shandy, Angry Chair Brewing, 6/30/17   Pulp Friction Grapefruit IPA, Motorworks Brewing 7/7/17
  4. No tapes: Trump says he didn't record meetings with Comey


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday he "did not make" and doesn't have any recordings of his private conversations with ousted FBI Director James Comey, speaking up on Twitter after a month-long guessing game that began with him delivering an ominous warning and ended with his administration ensnared …

    President Donald Trump speaks during the "American Leadership in Emerging Technology" event in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 22, 2017, in Washington. [AP Photo/Evan Vucci]
  5. Ramadan having an economic impact on local charities, businesses

    Economic Development

    TAMPA — Dodging the rain, a few families and customers gathered inside Petra Restaurant on Busch Boulevard. Around 8:30 p.m., the adham (or call to prayer) music begins, signaling Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Customers grabbed a plate to dig into the feast.

    Baha Abdullah, 35, the owner of the Sultan Market makes kataif, a common dessert that is eaten during the month long celebration of Ramadan in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]