Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige must submit to a deposition in a lawsuit filed against him and two church entities by Monique Rathbun, wife of high-profile church critic Marty Rathbun, a Texas judge ordered Friday.
The ruling was a blow to Scientology's legal team, which had tried to keep Miscavige distanced from the contentious action. Miscavige has testified in only a handful of cases during his 27 years as the church's leader.
From the start, church lawyers argued he should be dismissed as a defendant. They also vigorously opposed the effort to depose him.
The 53-year-old leader, who rarely is seen in public, focuses solely on Scientology's ecclesiastical matters, church lawyers said. He had no connection, his lawyers said, to what Rathbun describes in her suit as a three-year campaign of surveillance and harassment directed at her and her husband.
Forcing Miscavige to testify also would run afoul of First Amendment guarantees of the free exercise of religion, church lawyers said.
But Rathbun contends Miscavige supervised the church's tactics. Her lead attorney, Ray Jeffrey of San Antonio, argued Miscavige is a central figure in the case, that he micro-manages church operations and that Rathbun's team has a right to question him about any ties he may have had to the allegations in her suit. Comal County District Judge Dib Waldrip agreed.
Church lawyers indicated they would appeal. Waldrip told Rathbun's attorneys not to schedule a deposition for seven days.
If Miscavige is questioned, it could become a ticklish session.
Rathbun's attorneys could ask:
Did Miscavige order surveillance cameras hidden in the homes of Rathbuns' neighbors? The Rathbuns found cameras focused on their property.
Did he order church operatives to stalk the couple? Rathbun has testified she and her husband were followed and photographed — even in other states and in Germany.
Did Miscavige direct the band of Scientologists who called themselves "squirrel busters'' to stand outside the Rathbuns' home for 199 days and confront the couple — often testily?
"The prime witness we need is David Miscavige,'' said Jeffrey after Friday's ruling.
Monique Rathbun, 41, never has been a Scientologist. A manager at a health services company, she says in her suit she never attacked the church. She says she became a church target because she married, in 2010, a church enemy.
Marty Rathbun, 56, was a top Scientology officer for 22 years, working closely with Miscavige, often on the most sensitive matters facing the church.
He ran away from the church's religious order, the Sea Organization, in 2004, dismayed at what he considered inhumane treatment of staffers.
He lived quietly for five years. In 2009, he began speaking out about abuses he said he'd seen.
He wrote a blog sharply critical of Miscavige. He also figured prominently in the Tampa Bay Times' investigative series on Scientology, "The Truth Rundown." Rathbun and other former church officers alleged Miscavige physically attacked Sea Org staffers and encouraged a culture of violence — accusations the church denied.
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The Rathbuns lived then in a small town near Corpus Christi. Monique Rathbun said in her suit that church agents stalked and taunted her at home and at work, trying to drive a wedge between her and her husband.
The "squirrel busters'' were a second wave of hecklers, Rathbun alleged. Riding in golf carts and carrying videocameras, groups of four or five church members confronted the Rathbuns in front of their house.
They wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words "squirrel busters'' and a photo of Marty Rathbun's head atop a squirrel's body. Rathbun was delivering Scientology services in his home, outside the auspices of the church. Scientologists deeply oppose that, and refer to those who do it as squirrels.
The squirrel busters said they were filming a documentary. Church lawyers have argued the group had a constitutional right to protest Rathbun's unauthorized delivery of services. They say his wife's suit should be dismissed because it infringes on those free speech rights.
The "squirrel busters" disbanded in 2011, but surveillance continued. Seeking solitude, the Rathbuns moved to a remote, wooded lot outside San Antonio.
This summer, they discovered cameras on an adjacent property focused their way. Monique Rathbun sued in August, saying later: "We just can't keep running.''
Claiming she suffered emotional distress as a result of the church's "scorched earth'' tactics, Rathbun seeks damages of more than $1 million.
At the time she sued, a judge issued a temporary order restraining Miscavige, the church and two church operatives from further harassing and stalking her.
That order remains in effect.