NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — As Monique Rathbun sees it, the Church of Scientology and its operatives tried to intimidate her for years — following, spying, aggressively confronting her and her husband, and playing tricks at her workplace to make colleagues think less of her.
That's why she sued.
But Scientology lawyers on Wednesday offered a different take. They said the church's actions were justified and legal — all part of a religious dispute with Rathbun's husband, Marty. He worked as a church executive for decades before leaving in 2004. In 2009, he began speaking out against church management.
Church attorney Ricardo G. Cedillo, of San Antonio, referred to him as Scientology's version of Martin Luther, a modern day religious reformer.
What Monique Rathbun calls harassment, Scientology's lawyers characterize as an expression of free speech — its right to fight back and protest her husband's actions. They are trying to get her case dismissed in Comal County district court using a defense — a so-called "anti-SLAPP" motion — usually employed by underdogs who have spoken out against big corporate entities. Its intent is to give outgunned defendants relief from expensive lawsuits designed to intimidate them.
In this instance, Scientology's argument goes, the big corporate entity is the one being denied freedom of speech.
"We maintain our protest was peaceful,'' Cedillo said, referring to a group of Scientologists who for months confronted the Rathbuns outside their home. He added the church also had a right to hire private detectives to determine whether Rathbun was delivering Scientology services in violation of church copyrights and plotting other activities that would undermine the church.
Judge Dib Waldrip will hear from Monique Rathbun's lawyers in coming weeks. Whatever he decides, the closely watched case has become a crucible for the tumult that has gripped Scientology for nearly five years. It began when Marty Rathbun first spoke publicly about what he described as an abusive culture in Scientology. It has since played out on the Internet, in related court cases and in colorful sidewalk confrontations between church defectors and loyalists.
Now, for the first time, the two principals in the ongoing argument are key figures in a single lawsuit — Marty Rathbun and Scientology leader David Miscavige, who kept Rathbun as his chief deputy for years.
One clue to the magnitude of the case: More than 15 lawyers showed up Wednesday to represent Miscavige, two church entities and four other defendants. Another is the fact that several top church officials, including former spokesman Tommy Davis, have given sworn statements in depositions.
Davis was a prominent figure in the church, often appearing on network news shows. When Rathbun first surfaced with allegations that Miscavige had physically attacked top church staffers, it was Davis who talked to the Tampa Bay Times and later other news organizations, denying the allegations and calling Rathbun a lying brute. In 2011, however, Davis suddenly vanished from his post.
He said in his recent deposition that he remains a Scientologist, lives in Austin, Texas, and works for a private equity firm.
Under questioning from Monique Rathbun's lawyer Ray Jeffrey, he also supported the church's contention that Miscavige's position in Scientology is so elevated he never would have played a role in activities such as sending private detectives to confront the Rathbuns at their home near Corpus Christi.
Miscavige's lawyers are trying to get him removed as a defendant. Last month, however, Waldrip ordered Miscavige submit to a deposition, a step the church has vigorously opposed. Wednesday, the judge told church lawyers it was time "to get that done.''
Davis said in his testimony he never exchanged text messages with Miscavige and only discussed the Rathbun allegations in passing with him in 2009. At the time, Davis was telling Times reporters the church had conducted a thorough investigation and Miscavige never hit anyone.
Last week, Jeffrey gave the judge a sworn statement from Davis' former colleague, Mike Rinder, a long-time church spokesman. It said Rinder and Davis took direct orders in 2007 from Miscavige as they worked to stop a critical BBC report on Scientology. Jeffrey also submitted transcripts of what he said were text messages between Rinder, Davis and Miscavige. The messages are said to be from the cellphone Rinder used before he left the church in mid-2007.
In another deposition, church official Warren McShane revealed that the Church of Scientology International made weekly payments to the people who confronted Rathbun outside his home. The church also paid for a rented house, a videographer and a security guard.
The group stayed for 199 consecutive days, Rathbun's team has said. One videographer, who was not a Scientologist, later said the group's goal was to rattle Rathbun and get him to snap.
McShane also was questioned about "the Hole," a small office building at the church's desert compound in California, where, according to numerous former staffers, Scientology executives were held against their will for weeks and months as punishment, on Miscavige's orders.
Said McShane: It "never happened."