Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

Judge dismisses two lawsuits aimed at Scientology

The Church of Scientology won an important victory in federal court Thursday when a judge dismissed two lawsuits that accused the church of labor law violations, human trafficking and forced abortions.

Claire and Marc Headley, who left Scientology in 2005, said the church controlled them with threats of harsh punishment and other tactics that prevented them from leaving the Sea Organization, Scientology's religious order.

But U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer ruled that the Sea Org is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion.

The judge ruled that the Headleys performed religious duties and that the Sea Org falls within the "ministerial exception'' commonly granted to religious groups in employment cases. The exception prevents the court from prying into the church's internal workings to get to the bottom of the Headleys' allegations.

Continuing the case, the judge wrote, would require the court to analyze "the reasonableness of the methods" used to discipline Sea Org members and to prevent them from leaving. As for Claire Headley's allegation that she was forced to have two abortions, Fischer said the court would have had to review Scientology's doctrine prohibiting Sea Org members from raising children.

"Inquiry into these allegations would entangle the court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally motivated practices of the Sea Org," wrote Fischer, a judge in the Central District of California.

Church spokesman Tommy Davis called the Headleys apostates and "defrocked church ministers'' who brought "salacious allegations" against the church. He added: "Scientology wins.''

The Headleys said that the blanket dismissals surprised them, and they plan to appeal.

"It basically shows that if you've got enough high-powered attorneys and you've got enough money to throw at a problem that you can make it go away,'' Marc Headley said. "That's historically been the case with them. … In the end they do make the problem go away."

The case has been a rallying point for Scientology critics of all stripes — from those who decry everything about the church to estranged members who live by Scientology doctrine but say the church's management is corrupt.

"It's a big win for Scientology," said Stephen A. Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who studies alternative religions and closely follows Scientology.

He predicted that the ruling would help cement the Sea Org's standing as a religious order despite practices that set it apart from traditional orders. He cited, as examples, hard labor details to enforce discipline and requirements that members sign waivers and submit to "security checks" before they leave.

"I think it's a major blow for people who want the IRS to re-examine Scientology's status,'' Kent said. "People are wondering what kind of maneuver, what kind of position, is going to get the IRS to look again and a lot of people had their hopes on the Headley cases. Not now."

By invoking the "ministerial exception," Judge Fischer's ruling deals with a legal doctrine that has been debated for decades.

At issue is the conflict that arises when churches and other religious organizations are accused of violating federal workplace laws: How do the courts protect an accuser's individual rights without violating a church's right to freely practice religion?

Most of the 11 federal circuit courts have come down on the side of churches, holding that judicial inquiries into a religious group's inner workings could lead to excessive government intrusion into its doctrines and affairs.

In a 2002 Ohio case, the court used this rationale in throwing out the claims of Mary Rosati, a nun who was dismissed from her religious order after her superiors learned she had cancer.

On occasion, the ministerial exception is set aside, as in the case of Jesuit novice John Bollard, who filed suit in the late-1990s saying he was sexually harassed by his religious superiors. In that case it was ruled that the allegations had nothing to do with matters of faith.

Some argue that the ministerial exception should be invoked with more care because it allows religious organizations to engage in behavior that would not be tolerated from other entities.

"On the other hand it recognizes the unique nature of religion and its unique legal status in American life," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"There's a whole structure … that's been built up because of the separation of church and state," said Melton, an expert in new religions, including Scientology. "Probably the biggest opponent of changing those kinds of laws would be the Roman Catholic Church at this point" because of its reliance on religious workers to staff parochial schools.

The Headleys filed their lawsuits in January 2009. Church-hired lawyers in Los Angeles and New York skirmished for 20 months with the Headleys' legal team, filing thousands of pages of argument and trading accusations that included witness tampering.

Marc Headley joined the Sea Org at 16 in 1989, and Claire joined two years later, also at 16. The church assigned both to live and work with hundreds of other Sea Org members at Scientology's 500-acre property in the arid hills east of Los Angeles. They met there and married in 1992.

Marc Headley, now 37 and part owner of an audio-visual design firm in Burbank, became a key player in the church's elaborate film production studios. Claire Headley, 35 and bookkeeper at her husband's company, spent most of her Sea Org career working in the church's Religious Technology Center, the highest ecclesiastical authority in Scientology.

They said they routinely worked 80-hour weeks and got by on a few hours' sleep, as did their Sea Org colleagues. The church paid them $46 weekly, they said. Their suits asked the court to deem that to be unfair compensation and order payment of back wages.

Church lawyers targeted that accusation first, saying their work fit the ministerial exception. The judge agreed, leaving both lawsuits with the single allegation of human trafficking.

Claire Headley's two abortions — one at 19, the other at 21 — were key to her allegations. She said her abortions were required so she could "remain in good standing … and avoid adverse consequences'' in future Sea Org assignments.

In a series of reports in June, the St. Petersburg Times reported her account, as well as those of other women who had abortions while in the Sea Org.

In court filings, the church argued that Claire Headley chose to have the procedures because she did not want to lose status within the organization. The Sea Org has no "forced abortion'' policy, the church said, and the Sea Org's lifestyle is "reserved for those without the responsibility to rear young children.''

In her ruling, Judge Fischer noted that both Headleys knew the Sea Org's rules when they joined, and the ministerial exception prevents the courts from second guessing those rules. She cited a prior ruling that said: "Government interference with the church-minister relationship inherently burdens religion.''

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at [email protected] Joe Childs can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Suspect identified in string of carjackings from Orlando to Plant City

Suspect identified in string of carjackings from Orlando to Plant City

PLANT CITY — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has identified the suspect in a string of carjackings from Orlando to Plant City.Deputies are searching for Majar L. Jones, 43, of Orlando.Jones may still be in a stolen 2002 green Ford F-150 with...
Updated: 1 minute ago
The Daystarter: Lightning’s next opponent and playoffs’ economic impact; Rick Scott earns political victory; what goes on in that pink house?; it’s draft day for Bucs

The Daystarter: Lightning’s next opponent and playoffs’ economic impact; Rick Scott earns political victory; what goes on in that pink house?; it’s draft day for Bucs

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• Another sunny day today with high temperatures in the low 80s, according to 10Weather WTSP. Friday brings the possibility of rain, and the weekend brings the heat: Sunday’s high is in...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Is former Florida Gators lineman Taven Bryan a first-round NFL draft pick?

Is former Florida Gators lineman Taven Bryan a first-round NFL draft pick?

Aside from former Florida State safety Derwin James, the most likely first-round pick from a state college is ex-Florida defensive lineman Taven Bryan.He hopes, at least."That would (stink) if I didn't," Bryan said last month at Florida's pro da...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The Lightning is fun, but does its playoff run translate into dollars for Tampa?

The Lightning is fun, but does its playoff run translate into dollars for Tampa?

TAMPA — As the Tampa Bay Lightning wait for its next playoff opponent to come to town, the city’s business community — large and small — say they’ve already won this NHL postseason.At WestShore Plaza this week, with blue and white banners surrounding...
Updated: 1 hour ago
SOCom leader wanted to toss Google exec from car. Because he was right.

SOCom leader wanted to toss Google exec from car. Because he was right.

TAMPA — Standing in front of an audience of several thousand scientists, data wonks, geospatial intelligence analysts and other big thinkers, Army Gen. Tony Thomas drew some laughs when he talked about the time he felt the urge to toss Google CEO Eri...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The last cigar factory in Tampa keeps rolling

The last cigar factory in Tampa keeps rolling

YBOR CITY -- History lives here, inside the J.C. Newman Cigar Co.Machines manufactured in the 1930s are still used to pack and roll the cigars, and the sights and smells are throwbacks. Tobacco bits litter the weathered wooden floor, and a pungent od...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Romano: Is it still environmentally conscious if it’s based on a sham?

Romano: Is it still environmentally conscious if it’s based on a sham?

Let’s discuss biosolids waste. I promise, it won’t be gross or boring.No, this is more of a how-did-we-lose-money-again bedtime story.Our tale begins around 2006 when St. Pete officials began exploring a biosolids project. The city was eventually goi...
Updated: 2 hours ago
The Iron Nun still going strong at age 88

The Iron Nun still going strong at age 88

TAMPA —These smart phones and computers and internet are big annoyances to Sister Madonna Buder.Every time she turns around, there's a message or a request or a question coming into one of her devices from somewhere in the world."What's all the...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Long wait at Wingstop ends in brawl, hot oil and 2nd degree burns

Long wait at Wingstop ends in brawl, hot oil and 2nd degree burns

TAMPA — A customer visited Wingstop on Sunday night to pick-up his order. What happened next was off-menu:Robert Williams said he suffered second-degree burns on his back and legs after a Wingstop employee threw hot oil on him during a scuffle.Willia...
Updated: 8 hours ago
FHP identifies driver in crash that killed

FHP identifies driver in crash that killed "smiling" teen

TRINITY — Friends said what they’ll remember the most about Lillia Morris is that she was always smiling.The 17-year-old Mitchell High School junior was killed Tuesday when a sport-utility vehicle ran a red light on State Road 54 and slammed into the...
Updated: 9 hours ago