CLEARWATER — Former Scientologists Lynne Hoverson and Bert Schippers of Seattle are Scientology outcasts. The church declared them "suppressive'' last year for publicly criticizing church operations.
But Pinellas Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer ruled this week that if the couple wants to try to get back the $27,583 they left on account at Scientology's church in Clearwater, courts can't intervene, as they had hoped.
Instead, the couple must abide by church agreements they signed and submit to internal arbitration.
That means taking their dispute to a panel of three Scientologists in good standing.
"It would be like going in front of the hanging judge," Hoverson said.
The couple sued the church in November, seeking refunds on advance payments they made for services they never received at Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, known as Flag, and at the church's Caribbean-based cruise ship, the Freewinds.
Scientology countered, arguing that "enrollment agreements'' the couple signed at Flag, which are standard for all church members, are enforceable contracts.
The agreements state that prepayments for services are donations. And while the church has a refund process, the agreements say the church has no obligation to return the money. If a dispute arises, the church's "binding religious arbitration'' — three active church members — determines what is fair.
Schippers' attorney Brian Leung of Tampa and church lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater squared off in a hearing before Schaefer in February, arguing the validity of the agreements and First Amendment protections that prevent courts from examining religious practices.
Leung contended the agreements are unenforceable because of procedural problems. The arbitration clauses are buried in fine print, he said. And the church doesn't allow its parishioners to consult attorneys or negotiate. Schaefer disagreed this week.
He also ruled that he was not convinced the church's arbitration methods conflict with the public's interest in fair results, as Leung had argued.
Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said in a brief statement the church was pleased and Schaefer's ruling speaks for itself.
Hoverson said she and Schippers, who left the church in 2009, were weighing their options after Schaefer's ruling.
The church's arbitrators "would not be permitted to rule in our favor — period," Schippers said. "If they would, they would be declared suppressive by the church."
Leung equated it to a disgruntled car buyer having to take a complaint back to the dealership and asking for relief from three dealership employees.
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Schaefer did allow other parts of the couple's lawsuit to go forward.
He did not direct the couple to church arbitration for the $7,500 they placed on account at the church's cruise ship because no agreements were signed specifically for services on ship.
He also let stand another count he termed "a curious cause of action.''
Hoverson and Schippers asked the court to force the church to return $147,183 in "freeloader debt'' they paid in 2008, reimbursing the church for free training and services received by Hoverson's two children while serving as members of Scientology's religious order, the Sea Organization.
Danar Hoverson was a Sea Org member 15 years. Ximena Hoverson served nine years. When they left the order, the church billed them, as is customary for departing Sea Org members. The two remained Scientologists but could not take services until the bill was paid.
Calling it a "false debt,'' Hoverson and Schippers state in their suit that after paying the bill, the church directed the children not to communicate with them because the couple caused a stir after leaving the church.
If their suit goes forward, it could be the first time Scientology's commonly imposed "freeloader debt'' is contested in court.
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com.