Scientology begs radical US Supreme Court to intervene and protect its ‘religious freedom’
As promised, Scientology filed its petition to the US Supreme Court yesterday, asking it to overturn a stunning January ruling by a California appeals court that dealt a serious blow to the church’s use of arbitration clauses in membership contracts as a way to derail lawsuits by former members.
The January ruling restored a lawsuit filed by Danny Masterson’s rape accusers, who are suing Scientology for what they say has been years of harassment since they came forward to the LAPD in 2016 with their allegations against the That 70’s Show actor and Scientology celebrity.
First filed in August 2019, the lawsuit was derailed when a lower court judge agreed with Scientology that contracts the plaintiffs had signed while they were Scientology members obliged them not to sue the church and to take their dispute to the church’s own internal “religious arbitration.”
But the appeals court ruled that because the harm the Masterson accusers were alleging — the stalking and harassment and hacking of their phones — occurred after they had left the church, the contracts no longer applied.
Now, Scientology is asking the highest court in the land to intervene in the case and reverse that appellate decision. But the US Supreme Court is under no obligation to get involved, and in fact it accepts very few of the hundreds of petitions that are submitted to it each year.
So, in order to get the court’s attention and convince it to take up the matter of Scientology’s “arbitration,” its attorneys are trying to speak this strongly conservative court’s language. The appeals court ruling “weaponizes the First Amendment against religious freedom,” Scientology’s petition says, after first explaining that Scientology is just like other religions that have their own internal justice procedures.
The 36-page document is soaked in religious language, which is a favorite Scientology tactic in litigation. Not once in the lengthy document, however, is the distinction made that the California appeals court considered so important: Not only that these former Scientologists had left the organization, but that the harm they claimed they were suffering was inflicted on them by Scientology after they had departed.
Scientology in its petition instead portrays the California appeals court as a rogue actor creating a frightening threat to all religions:
At some point, Respondents changed their minds, and their faith. They argued that their change of faith should free them from their contractual obligations to submit their disputes with Petitioners to the chosen religious forum. The California Court of Appeal agreed. It became the first court in the nation to overturn a freely executed religious arbitration agreement based on the objection by a party that the selected forum was exactly what the party agreed to – religious….The notion that the First Amendment empowers the state to regulate the covenant between a church and its congregation could not be more wrong or dangerous. Rather, the First Amendment forbids the state to weigh the reasonableness of the “price” of joining a religion, whether that price be a baptism, bris, holy communion, or an agreement to be bound by ecclesiastical law in all dealings with the religion. This unprecedented decision from the most populous state in the Union violates the fundamental constitutional right that the law should not discriminate against persons on the basis of religion. It relies on a novel theory of state action that could be deployed to bar enforcement of any contract with a religious organization where one of the contracting parties professes to have a change of faith.
Wow. This description sounds nothing like the January ruling that we read, in which the California appeals court was careful to explain that it wasn’t denying a church its ability to enforce its contracts, or that merely leaving a church would cancel those contracts, but again that Scientology is accused of hacking, surveilling, harassing, and even poisoning the pets of these former Scientologists after they had left the church.
We remember well the hearing the appeals court held, with a justice asking a Scientology lawyer, if someone were only a member for a couple of weeks and then twenty years later was run over by a Scientology van, would they still have to take that matter to Scientology’s internal arbitration? That is Scientology’s position, the lawyer responded.
It was a ridiculous answer, and it helped the appeals court arrive at a common sense ruling, that a church shouldn’t be able to harm you years after you left and still haul you into their internal religious court (which, in Scientology’s case, is a proceeding completely stacked against former members).
In the petition, Scientology’s attorneys have taken that common sense notion and made it sound like every religion in the country is under assault by a California court.
Well, the odds are stacked against them, since the Supreme Court grants so few petitions. And here’s a fun aside: We know that many of you were very concerned that the California State Supreme Court decided not to publish the Bixler decision. But we’re told that the ruling being unpublished makes it less likely that the Supreme Court would take it up as an issue, and so Scientology, which didn’t want the ruling published, spends some time in the petition trying to deal with this. Whoops.
Here’s the document. There’s a lot here, and we look forward to your thoughts on it.
Scientology’s SCOTUS petition in ‘Bixler’
We know these cases are very complex, and so we also want to provide some basics to help you keep track of which cases we’re talking about. In August 2019, Chrissie Carnell-Bixler, her husband Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Bobette Riales, and two women going by Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 filed the lawsuit against Danny Masterson and the Church of Scientology. The four women had, in 2016 and 2017, gone to the LAPD with allegations that Masterson had raped them many years earlier, and that they had not come forward sooner in part because they feared retaliation from Scientology.
In June 2020, the LA District Attorney’s office filed criminal charges against Masterson for forcibly raping Chrissie Carnell-Bixler and the two Jane Does. That case is scheduled for trial on October 11, and if Masterson is convicted of all three counts he’s facing 45 years to life in prison. That case is known as People v. Masterson.
The Bixler v. Scientology civil lawsuit, however, is not specifically about the rape allegations. It’s a harassment lawsuit that alleges that since the women came forward to the LAPD in 2016, they’ve been subjected to a campaign of stalking and interference in their lives which they believe has been perpetrated by Masterson and the church. (Masterson and Scientology both deny it.)
Scientology filed a motion with the court saying that because Chrissie, Cedric, and the two Jane Does had signed service contracts in Scientology, and that those contracts contained arbitration clauses, they had essentially promised never to sue the church and should instead take their grievances to Scientology’s own version of arbitration. (Not independent arbitration, but a proceeding controlled by Scientology and presided over by three arbitrators who must be members of the church in good standing.) Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Steven Kleifield granted this motion on December 30, 2020, derailing the lawsuit. (Bobette Riales was never a Scientologist, so she was unaffected by the ruling.)
The Bixler plaintiffs then petitioned California’s 2nd Appellate Division, asking it to intervene, but that petition was denied. They then petitioned the California State Supreme Court for it to step in. This was also a longshot. However, at about that same time, in the criminal case, the three women had a chance to testify live in court for the first time at Masterson’s preliminary hearing, held in Los Angeles in May 2021. Press coverage of their testimony was shocking, and suggested a pattern of drugging and violent rapes.
Just weeks later, the California Supreme Court made the surprising decision to intervene in the Bixler lawsuit and grant review of the arbitration ruling. It asked the 2nd Appellate Division to conduct an appeal, which resulted in the hearing we mentioned earlier, the one where Scientology said that if you were run over by a Scientology van 20 years after leaving the church, you still couldn’t sue.
On January 19, the appeals court issued its stunning ruling, overturning Judge Kleifield’s order. Scientology then asked the state supreme court to review the ruling, which was denied. So now the church is throwing its Hail Mary to the US Supreme Court. And that catches you up.
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I don’t think the Supreme Court will take this up but in a way I wish they would because I firmly believe the church of scientology would lose. And that would be a great day.
How will plaintiffs prove that Miscavige and his minions caused the harm noted in the lawsuit? All this other stuff is procedural and the big question is can 'arbitration' be forced for every claim made by a former member? It is ridiculous for that to be a bone of contention, but the CO$ has always been at war with desert topping and floor wax.
I don't see how the legality of $cieno 'arbitration' can be brought in, unless the Garcia's appeal goes higher. There might be another way......psssst...'Amy Coney Barrett, do you know what Hubbard said about Jesus Christ....'