The Church of Scientology, faced with new allegations of human trafficking, is mounting a legal defense it has successfully used before.
Its lawyers are arguing this week in Tampa federal court that former Scientologists who level accusations must bring their cases before an internal arbitration panel of loyal church members — not to the U.S. court system.
The lawyers, in a series of motions filed late Tuesday, argue that plaintiffs Valeska Paris, 44, and husband and wife Gawain Baxter, 40, and Laura Baxter, 37, signed contracts when they were in the church’s Sea Org workforce that waived civil recourse and compelled them to settle any future disputes within the church.
The three allege in a federal lawsuit filed in April that they were trafficked into Scientology as children and forced to work through adulthood for little or no pay.
The church’s motion also includes copies of departure contracts that the Baxters and Paris signed when they left the church, in 2012 and 2007 respectively, reiterating the arbitration agreement.
The church brought forward a similar argument in the case of former Scientologists Luis and Rocio Garcia, and got a Tampa federal judge and the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to agree. The couple alleged in a 2013 federal lawsuit that the church committed financial fraud in securing donations totaling $1.3 million from them.
In his motion Tuesday, Charles M. Harris, an attorney for Scientology, argued that the appellate court, in its 2021 ruling against the Garcias, “enforced the identical arbitration agreements” that the Baxters and Paris signed while in the church.
A Tampa federal judge had granted Scientology’s request to compel the Garcias into arbitration in 2015. In his appeal, Theodore Babbitt, the Garcias’ attorney, called the two-day hearing that took place in 2017 “a sham” as church officials refused to allow the couple to enter evidence critical of Scientology or have an attorney present.
Although the church has portrayed such arbitrations as standard practice, the Garcias’ hearing was the first one held in Scientology’s nearly 70-year history.
Babbitt said that all defectors are seen as enemies of the church, so the Garcias could not possibly receive a fair hearing, making the agreements they signed “substantively unconscionable.”
But the 11th circuit appellate panel voted 2-1 to uphold the original ruling in Tampa. They held that delving into the fairness of Scientology’s arbitration process would be interpreting religious doctrine in violation of the First Amendment.
In his motion Tuesday, Harris argued that because the Baxters and Paris were full-time religious workers, not parishioners like the Garcias, Scientology’s case for arbitration is even stronger under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
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“The Church’s ecclesiastical arbitration is a condition of service in the Sea Org,” Harris wrote.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, attorneys Neil Glazer and Ted Leopold, co-counsel for Paris and the Baxters, said their clients are “entitled to have their day in court.”
“Our clients experienced unspeakable mistreatment at the hands of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige,” the statement said. “We are very confident in our position and look forward to seeing this case to its conclusion.”
Paris and Gawain Baxter both worked at Scientology’s Flag Land Base in Clearwater as children and later went to work on the church’s Freewinds ship, which operates in the Caribbean to disseminate the
church’s highest level of spiritual counseling to parishioners. Laura Baxter went to work on the Freewinds at age 16.
Their complaint names five church entities and Scientology leader David Miscavige as defendants. As of Wednesday, only Miscavige had not filed a response.
The lawsuit alleges six counts of forced labor and peonage in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
In a separate motion filed on Tuesday, Harris argued that if the court does not send the case to arbitration, none of the plaintiffs’ allegations of abuse prior to 2003 would apply because the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was amended in 2003 and not made retroactive.
He argued their allegations of abuse that occurred after 2003 should be dismissed because they occurred on the Freewinds, outside of the United States.