CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology, defending itself against a $35,000 refund claim, told a Pinellas judge Friday that the courts cannot meddle in its religious affairs.
Citing the First Amendment as it has in numerous court cases, the church told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer that two former parishioners from Seattle must submit to an internal Scientology arbitration procedure to get any money back.
Bert Schippers and Lynne Hoverson, longtime Scientologists who left the church in 2009, sued two of the church's Clearwater entities in November after they requested their money back and didn't receive it.
As is common in Scientology, Schippers left the money "on account" with the church to pay later for spiritual counseling. But he never used it.
The church argues the couple first must submit to "binding religious arbitration" as laid out in a standard church contract Schippers signed before giving the money. The contract calls for a panel of three Scientologists in good standing to decide what would be fair.
Schippers' lawyer, Brian Leung of Tampa, told Schaefer the arbitration process is inherently unfair because Schippers and Hoverson are estranged from the church and considered "suppressive." Scientologists in good standing consider them heretics. The three-member internal panel would be unlikely to give them a fair hearing, Leung said.
The contract Schippers signed — the same one signed by all Scientologists before taking services — is extreme and unenforceable, Leung said.
Church lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater said none of that matters. Numerous courts have held that the First Amendment shields religions from judicial intrusion. To rule on the merits of the contract, Schaefer would have to entangle himself in religious issues, Pope said.
He argued: "Only Scientology law applies."
Pope also said the law does not require charitable organizations to return donations.
"A gift once made cannot be revoked by the donor," he said, citing Florida case law.
Even so, Scientology has a process for returning donations, Pope said.
He argued that Schippers would have his money back by now if he had completed that process, which requires parishioners to get signatures on a "routing form" from several church officials.
Schippers started the process more than a year ago but sent the church an incomplete routing form in January 2011.
"The whole goal of this form is to get you back into services at the church," Schippers said. "Therefore, it's incompleteable."
He and Hoverson were among several former church members featured in a recent Tampa Bay Times series "The Money Machine," which detailed Scientology's aggressive and intimidating money-raising practices.
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Schaefer said he will rule on the issue later this month.
In contrast to the church's stance Friday in Pinellas, it is asking a Texas court to get involved in an internal matter there. It wants the court to force a former church executive to abide by a confidentiality agreement she signed with the church in 2007.
The church last week sued Debbie Cook, the highest ranking church official in Clearwater for 17 years, saying she violated the agreement on New Year's Eve when she questioned church management in an email to fellow Scientologists.
A key hearing in that case is scheduled for Thursday in San Antonio, Texas.
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com.