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  1. Opinion

Scientology's First Amendment rights and wrongs

Published Feb. 1, 2012

The Church of Scientology relies heavily on First Amendment religious freedoms to shield itself from scrutiny in this country, but it is awfully quick to suppress freedom of speech that enjoys the same constitutional protections. The same church that raises the specter of Nazi oppression whenever it faces inquiry from German and French officials, expects its former, hardworking employees in the United States to sign away their free speech rights for as little as $500 in severance. The First Amendment is not a buffet where some rights are recognized and other inconvenient ones are ignored.

The hypocrisy is clear in the church's latest retaliation against a former employee who dared to speak out even as she attempted to provoke reforms from within. Debbie Cook, the church's former longtime leader in Clearwater, is now facing a lawsuit in Texas for allegedly violating her 2007 severance agreement. On New Year's Eve, her letter urging Scientologists to work internally to reform the church's aggressive fundraising tactics and other practices reached thousands of church members via email and became widely publicized, including in the Tampa Bay Times.

But Cook and her husband, in order to receive $50,000 each in severance, had signed a nondisclosure clause — apparently a standard operating procedure for the church. Cook had been a Sea Org employee for 29 years, 17 of which were as the top Clearwater official where she presided over an operation that brought in more than $100 million annually for the organization. Several former church members told the Tampa Bay Times' Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin that severances of $500 to $5,000 were more common but also frequently required nondisclosure agreements.

Previous Times stories have detailed how Sea Org members have extraordinary work schedules for little pay and how the church's fundraising tactics have included encouraging church members to borrow thousands of dollars, hit the limit on their credit cards and mortgage their homes to pay for church texts or courses. Yet First Amendment religious protections have blocked serious, formal scrutiny. Just two years ago, the church escaped allegations it violated labor laws and engaged in human trafficking and forced abortions when a federal judge dismissed two lawsuits by former Sea Org workers, saying the suits would violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion. And the church also benefits from tax-exempt status, another manifestation of the First Amendment's religious protection.

The lengths the church goes to protect its secrecy is remarkable. Cook and her husband had an additional clause in their agreement with the church that they could be liable for at least $100,000 for each disparaging Internet posting, television broadcast or newspaper article. If this case moves forward, the judge should ensure that all depositions, court filings and court hearings are public. The public should be able to observe how the Church of Scientology seeks to wrap itself in First Amendment protections to avoid scrutiny and strip those protections from members of the church who were seeking to reform it.

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