The Church of Scientology won an important victory in federal court Thursday when a judge dismissed two lawsuits that accused the church of labor law violations, human trafficking and forced abortions.
Claire and Marc Headley, who left Scientology in 2005, said the church controlled them with threats of harsh punishment and other tactics that prevented them from leaving the Sea Organization, Scientology's religious order.
But U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer ruled that the Sea Org is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion.
The judge ruled that the Headleys performed religious duties and that the Sea Org falls within the "ministerial exception'' commonly granted to religious groups in employment cases. The exception prevents the court from prying into the church's internal workings to get to the bottom of the Headleys' allegations.
Continuing the case, the judge wrote, would require the court to analyze "the reasonableness of the methods" used to discipline Sea Org members and to prevent them from leaving. As for Claire Headley's allegation that she was forced to have two abortions, Fischer said the court would have had to review Scientology's doctrine prohibiting Sea Org members from raising children.
"Inquiry into these allegations would entangle the court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally motivated practices of the Sea Org," wrote Fischer, a judge in the Central District of California.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis called the Headleys apostates and "defrocked church ministers'' who brought "salacious allegations" against the church. He added: "Scientology wins.''
The Headleys said that the blanket dismissals surprised them, and they plan to appeal.
"It basically shows that if you've got enough high-powered attorneys and you've got enough money to throw at a problem that you can make it go away,'' Marc Headley said. "That's historically been the case with them. … In the end they do make the problem go away."
The case has been a rallying point for Scientology critics of all stripes — from those who decry everything about the church to estranged members who live by Scientology doctrine but say the church's management is corrupt.
"It's a big win for Scientology," said Stephen A. Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who studies alternative religions and closely follows Scientology.
He predicted that the ruling would help cement the Sea Org's standing as a religious order despite practices that set it apart from traditional orders. He cited, as examples, hard labor details to enforce discipline and requirements that members sign waivers and submit to "security checks" before they leave.
"I think it's a major blow for people who want the IRS to re-examine Scientology's status,'' Kent said. "People are wondering what kind of maneuver, what kind of position, is going to get the IRS to look again and a lot of people had their hopes on the Headley cases. Not now."
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By invoking the "ministerial exception," Judge Fischer's ruling deals with a legal doctrine that has been debated for decades.
At issue is the conflict that arises when churches and other religious organizations are accused of violating federal workplace laws: How do the courts protect an accuser's individual rights without violating a church's right to freely practice religion?
Most of the 11 federal circuit courts have come down on the side of churches, holding that judicial inquiries into a religious group's inner workings could lead to excessive government intrusion into its doctrines and affairs.
In a 2002 Ohio case, the court used this rationale in throwing out the claims of Mary Rosati, a nun who was dismissed from her religious order after her superiors learned she had cancer.
On occasion, the ministerial exception is set aside, as in the case of Jesuit novice John Bollard, who filed suit in the late-1990s saying he was sexually harassed by his religious superiors. In that case it was ruled that the allegations had nothing to do with matters of faith.
Some argue that the ministerial exception should be invoked with more care because it allows religious organizations to engage in behavior that would not be tolerated from other entities.
"On the other hand it recognizes the unique nature of religion and its unique legal status in American life," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"There's a whole structure … that's been built up because of the separation of church and state," said Melton, an expert in new religions, including Scientology. "Probably the biggest opponent of changing those kinds of laws would be the Roman Catholic Church at this point" because of its reliance on religious workers to staff parochial schools.
The Headleys filed their lawsuits in January 2009. Church-hired lawyers in Los Angeles and New York skirmished for 20 months with the Headleys' legal team, filing thousands of pages of argument and trading accusations that included witness tampering.
Marc Headley joined the Sea Org at 16 in 1989, and Claire joined two years later, also at 16. The church assigned both to live and work with hundreds of other Sea Org members at Scientology's 500-acre property in the arid hills east of Los Angeles. They met there and married in 1992.
Marc Headley, now 37 and part owner of an audio-visual design firm in Burbank, became a key player in the church's elaborate film production studios. Claire Headley, 35 and bookkeeper at her husband's company, spent most of her Sea Org career working in the church's Religious Technology Center, the highest ecclesiastical authority in Scientology.
They said they routinely worked 80-hour weeks and got by on a few hours' sleep, as did their Sea Org colleagues. The church paid them $46 weekly, they said. Their suits asked the court to deem that to be unfair compensation and order payment of back wages.
Church lawyers targeted that accusation first, saying their work fit the ministerial exception. The judge agreed, leaving both lawsuits with the single allegation of human trafficking.
Claire Headley's two abortions — one at 19, the other at 21 — were key to her allegations. She said her abortions were required so she could "remain in good standing … and avoid adverse consequences'' in future Sea Org assignments.
In a series of reports in June, the St. Petersburg Times reported her account, as well as those of other women who had abortions while in the Sea Org.
In court filings, the church argued that Claire Headley chose to have the procedures because she did not want to lose status within the organization. The Sea Org has no "forced abortion'' policy, the church said, and the Sea Org's lifestyle is "reserved for those without the responsibility to rear young children.''
In her ruling, Judge Fischer noted that both Headleys knew the Sea Org's rules when they joined, and the ministerial exception prevents the courts from second guessing those rules. She cited a prior ruling that said: "Government interference with the church-minister relationship inherently burdens religion.''
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe Childs can be reached at email@example.com.