TAMPA — A closely watched lawsuit over the Church of Scientology's fundraising tactics is expected to reach a pivotal point today in U.S. District Court.
Attorneys for the church and two plaintiffs who say Scientology staffers pressured and deceived them into making large donations are expected to question more witnesses and complete their arguments, ending two days of hearings.
At issue: whether Scientology's internal justice system takes precedence over the U.S. legal system when it comes to former church members who want their money back.
The matter of refunds has received more attention in recent years as many Scientologists have left the church after allegations of aggressive fundraising and other abuses by church management. Scientologists routinely pay five- and six-figure sums for church counseling and donations to church causes.
The plaintiffs in the Tampa case are Luis and Rocio Garcia, who left the church after 28 years, saying they grew weary of the money demands and were convinced Scientology's spiritual practices had been "corrupted." They say they spent $1.3 million on church services and causes, including more than $420,000 for Scientology's new "Super Power" building in Clearwater.
Church leaders say the couple must go through Scientology's justice system to be considered for a refund, but the couple argues there are no procedures in place for arbitration.
As part of Wednesday's hearing, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore heard video testimony from Mike Ellis, Scientology's International Justice chief. Ellis said the church has a system in which Scientologists in good standing meet as a "Committee of Evidence" to hear cases and issue recommendations.
Ellis said the committee is used for all matters of justice in Scientology, but he also said he has never known it to be used for arbitration.
The Garcias' attorney, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, questioned Ellis at length about the differences between a Committee of Evidence and an arbitration procedure, the number of people involved, how they are selected and whether their ruling is binding.
Ellis maintained that a Committee of Evidence would be the route a "suppressive person" — someone expelled from the church — would take in order to seek a refund.
He also confirmed that someone expelled from Scientology has no rights under church policy. He said such a person could ask for a Committee of Evidence to challenge their expulsion, but not to seek a refund.
"It wouldn't be the right vehicle for that," he said.
His statements on that point appeared to agree with some earlier testimony by Luis Garcia, who said the committee is in place for matters of "justice," which he said refers to violations of Scientology's moral code. There is no way a committee could be convened for considering a refund, Garcia said.
The Garcias' lawyers also argued in a memorandum filed this week that a person who has been expelled from the church, as the Garcias have, would be unable to receive a fair judgment from a panel made up of Scientologists in good standing.
Ellis disagreed, saying church arbitrators would be impartial, even toward a suppressive person.
The church argued that the procedure for arbitration is listed in enrollment agreements, which parishioners sign whenever they want to take a course or use a service. Garcia said he likely signed more than 40 such agreements during his time in the church.
It was unclear when Whittemore would issue a ruling.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.