Can the Church of Scientology escape the U.S. civil justice system? On Tuesday, in a lawsuit that alleges four women were stalked and harassed after they told the Los Angeles Police Department about sexual assaults by '70s Show actor Danny Masterson, the Church of Scientology pushed to compel "religious arbitration."
Chrissie Carnell Bixler, Marie Riales and two Jane Does filed their lawsuit in August claiming stalking, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In reaction, Masterson told The Hollywood Reporter that the suit was "beyond ridiculous" and that the "public will finally be able [to] learn the truth." He added that he'd sue his ex-girlfriend and others for dragging him into a mess that has tarnished his reputation.
But the big move comes from the Church of Scientology, a co-defendant in the case. The argument being made is that these women agreed to ecclesiastical justice procedures when they first committed to practice Scientology. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge is presented with their written agreements.
Thanks to the Federal Arbitration Act, compulsory arbitration is favored upon mutual consent. Over the years, that's left a wide range of individuals with lesser bargaining power — everyone from employees to those signing up for tech service — complaining about unconscionable agreements, but for the most part, the Supreme Court has enforced arbitration agreements. But this typically means that litigants go to JAMS, AAA or other alternative arbitration venues. Here, the Scientologists step forward with a motion that would go far in shielding its leaders from facing civil claims.
"Under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the United States and California Constitutions the Church may establish its own rules governing its relationship with its members exempt from civil law," states a motion to compel religious arbitration. "The Church’s ecclesiastical arbitration is a condition of participating in Scientology services. This Court may not interfere with this condition by imposing civil rules for arbitration. The Church’s arbitration agreements, as written and agreed to, must be enforced."
According to new court papers, the women each executed agreements, stipulating, "My freely given consent to be bound exclusively by the discipline, faith, internal organization, and ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law of the Scientology religion in all matters relating to Scientology Religious Services, in all my dealings of any nature with the Church, and in all my dealings of any nature with any other Scientology church or organization which espouses, presents, propagates or practices the Scientology religion means that I am forever abandoning, surrendering, waiving, and relinquishing my right to sue, or otherwise seek legal recourse with respect to any dispute, claim or controversy against the Church, all other Scientology churches, all other organizations which espouse, present, propagate or practice the Scientology religion, and all persons employed by any such entity both in their personal and any official or representational capacities, regardless of the nature of the dispute, claim or controversy."
Under the Church of Scientology's program for adjudicating disputes, members must request arbitration from the Church, and a panel of three arbitrators — each "Scientologists in good standing with the Mother Church" — will render their version of justice.
Does the Federal Arbitration Act apply?
Given that this is a case in state court, the Church first addresses that question, arguing that the plaintiffs' agreements "affect interstate commerce" because among other things, the Church solicits and receives donations throughout the country and provides spiritual, educational and other charitable services.
The Church then nods to a line of Supreme Court cases standing for the proposition that any doubts about the scope of arbitration issues be resolved in favor of arbitration.
"Plaintiffs may argue that their claims arose after they severed their relationship with the Church," continues the brief. "However, such an argument is neither true nor legally relevant. Plaintiffs’ claims incorporate by reference all previous allegations, which include allegations of traumatic experiences occurring while parishioners of the Church, over a decade before the relationships with the Church were severed."
Finally, the Church of Scientology anticipates that the women alleging Danny Masterson abuse or Scientology stalking will challenge this arbitration agreement for unconscionability.
Setting up yet another big case both for Scientology and the scope of religious liberty, the defendant holds up the First Amendment.
"The U.S. and California Constitutions prohibit this Court from imposing civil concepts of due process when adjudicating disputes between a church and its members," states the motion. "Rather, a church’s procedures for addressing such disputes are all but unreviewable.... This Court may not impose its own notions of 'fairness' in deciding whether Plaintiffs’ agreements with the Church are fair or right. To do so would interfere with a Church’s rules over its members, which is clearly forbidden...."
As for procedural unconscionability, the Church's lawyers also make the case that the women were hardly forced into this situation.
Writes Jeffer Mangels attorney Matthew Hinks, "As to 'oppression,' the concept of 'no meaningful choice' may make sense in a consumer context, but it has no bearing when an individual seeks religious services."