Three former Church of Scientology workers who said they endured “a world filled with abuse, violence, intimidation and fear” in the organization must bring their claims of human trafficking to an arbitration panel of loyal church members, not the U.S. justice system, a federal judge has ruled.
Valeska Paris and husband and wife Gawain and Laura Baxter sued five church entities and Scientology leader David Miscavige in Tampa federal court last April, alleging they were trafficked into Scientology as children and forced to work through adulthood for little or no pay.
But during their young adulthoods in Scientology’s full-time Sea Org workforce, they all signed multiple contracts between 2003 and 2015 agreeing to resolve any future dispute through binding religious arbitration.
They argued the agreements are invalid because Scientology teaches that defectors are “suppressive persons” and that they could never receive a fair hearing from internal arbitrators who view them as enemies of the church.
But deciding whether Scientology teachings render the agreements unenforceable would require the court to interpret religious doctrine, something the First Amendment forbids, U.S. District Judge Tom Barber wrote in his order on Friday.
“An uninterested observer reading the (lawsuit) would likely be surprised and shocked by the conduct alleged,” Barber wrote. “But under existing law, plaintiffs are limited to seeking relief through arbitration within the Scientology organization itself, not through the courts.”
The order comes six weeks after a magistrate judge ruled that Scientology leader David Miscavige was “actively concealing his whereabouts or evading service” in the case and declared him officially served. Barber’s order stayed the lawsuit and directed the parties to notify the court within 14 days of the resolution of arbitration proceedings.
“We won,” Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw said in a statement. “This decision is another victory for the Church. The judge has rejected plaintiffs bringing false and scurrilous allegations against the Church in court.”
Shaw added: “This case was nothing but a sham and a scam. From its inception, this case has been nothing but the most blatant harassment. It has now been thrown out of court and into arbitration, where it always belonged.”
Paris and the Baxters contend they signed the agreements under severe duress, including “imprisonment and threats of economic, reputation and physical harm,” according to the order.
But Barber said that U.S. Supreme Court case law requires the question of whether contracts were signed under duress to be determined by arbitrators too.
Zahra Dean, an attorney at Kohn Swift and part of the legal team representing Paris and the Baxters, indicated they will continue their fight in the case.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“We are not deterred by the initial ruling on arbitration, which we respectfully disagree with,” Dean said in a statement. “Our clients remain motivated to move forward and see this to the end, however long it may take.”
The order bolsters a relatively new legal defense that Scientology has used with increasing success. Now nearly 70 years old, Scientology didn’t hold its first arbitration until 2017. Barber’s order repeatedly cites the inaugural case, which played out in the same district court.
Luis and Rocio Garcia had sued Scientology in Tampa federal court in 2013 to get refunded $1.3 million of their donations to humanitarian causes and church building projects they said were fraudulent. But because the couple had signed dozens of contracts over their 28 years as parishioners agreeing to resolve any disputes internally, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore granted the church’s motion to compel the couple into religious arbitration.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the decision in 2021.
Theodore Babbitt, an attorney for the Garcias, called the two-day arbitration 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.
“Essentially, (the Garcias) were denied any opportunity to present their case,” Babbitt wrote in an appeal filed in 2019. “They were also lectured by the chairman that they are suppressive persons trying to destroy the Church and they should recant and atone and come back to the church.”
In 2019, former Sea Org member Valerie Haney sued Scientology for kidnapping, stalking and other claims after escaping from the church’s international management compound in California in the trunk of a car. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge in 2020 ordered her case into internal arbitration, citing the contract Haney had signed when she returned to the church after her escape in order to complete Scientology’s process for leaving on good terms.
“Courts have repeatedly upheld our position,” Shaw said.