Scientology Wants It Both Ways: The Church's Opposite Legal Strategies In Florida and Texas
Back in November, the St. Petersburg Times uncorked its best expose of the Church of Scientology yet -- "The Money Machine," a look at Scientology's incredible appetite for fundraising among its members.
Just three months later, two court cases are putting an exclamation point on that investigative series (which should really win the paper, which has changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times, another Pulitzer prize this April, something its Scientology reporting has garnered in the past).
But what's even more interesting about these court cases -- the lawsuit against former church official Debbie Cook taking place in San Antonio that Scientology watchers around the world are already glued to, and another lawsuit taking place in Clearwater, Florida that Times journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin described just yesterday -- is that they take completely opposing legal strategies which illustrates the church's highly malleable concept of religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution.
In Texas, Scientology is asking for $300,000 in damages because it says that Cook violated a contract when she put out her famous New Year's Eve e-mail criticizing problems in her church. Rather than a religious dispute, this is purely business, Scientology's attorneys will be arguing.
But in Florida, Scientology is saying the opposite: it is defending itself against a claim by former church members Bert Schippers and Lynne Hoverson, who want money back they had banked for future services that they never used. In that case, Scientology's lawyers have told a judge that the courts should butt out. "Only Scientology law applies" in what is strictly a religious dispute, the judge has been told.
Hoverson and Schippers appeared in the "The Money Machine" in November -- they were in the installment that focused on some of the extreme fundraising techniques in the church, and about the seeking of donations for the International Association of Scientologists in particular.
The couple also did what many dedicated Scientologists do, banking large sums of money with the church for future services as they moved up the "Bridge to Total Freedom," as Scientology's system of increasingly expensive spiritual advancement is called.
And like others, after leaving the church, they then wanted to get that unused money back, so they've taken the church to court. Write Tobin and Childs...
The church argues the couple first must submit to "binding religious arbitration" as laid out in a standard church contract Schippers signed before giving the money. The contract calls for a panel of three Scientologists in good standing to decide what would be fair.
As former members who have been declared "suppressive persons" by the church (Scientology's version of excommunication), Schippers and Hoverson say that they can't get fair treatment from a panel of Scientologists.
And besides, Schippers points out, the documents they are required to fill out in such a process are really just designed to get them to return to the church.
"The whole goal of this form is to get you back into services at the church," Schippers told the Times. "Therefore, it's incompleteable."
This is not a random observation. The Times itself has documented how Scientology deals with church members who "blow" -- defect -- with processes designed to get them to give up their notions of breaking away. In a 2009 piece, Childs and Tobin described the incredible experiences of Sinar Parman and his then wife, Jackie Wolff, as they blew and were coaxed back multiple times, and each time with promises that they could leave if they just did it properly, filling out forms and completing "routing out" programs.
Schippers wanted nothing to do with Scientology's own internal rules for refunds. So he and Hoverson sued. The church's response?
Church lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater said...Numerous courts have held that the First Amendment shields religions from judicial intrusion. To rule on the merits of the contract, Schaefer would have to entangle himself in religious issues, Pope said. He argued: "Only Scientology law applies."
Seems clear enough: In Florida, Scientology is saying that its First Amendment rights protect it from the courts getting involved in its contracts with church members.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Scientology wants a court to see things completely the other way around. Former church executive Debbie Cook will argue that the First Amendment protects her decision to exercise her rights of religious freedom by sending out an e-mail on New Year's Eve to thousands of her fellow church members which complained that the church, under leader David Miscavige, is getting away from the principles of founder L. Ron Hubbard. But Scientology is arguing that the courts should intervene and award it damages because, it says, her e-mail was a violation of a non-disclosure agreement she signed in 2007 when she left church staff.
In Florida: it's about religion, not contracts.
In Texas: it's about contracts, not religion.
As a strategy, Scientology as a matter of course counts on judges and law enforcement agencies (and the general public) to be clueless about its past and its methods. And in this case, is Scientology counting on judges in different states having no idea what it's up to?
We turned to our legal expert, Manhattan attorney Scott Pilutik, who gave us this rundown...
In one sense, the Schippers/Hoverson refund dispute with Scientology is somewhat ordinary fare, given that ex-members have forever been getting the runaround from Scientology when they try to get their money back on account. But the timing and venue of this action are striking in light of Scientology's case brought against Debbie Cook in Texas.
In Florida, Scientology lawyers are arguing that the court cannot interpret the Schippers/Hoverson contracts, without impermissibly entangling itself in religious issues.
But in Texas, Scientology has shamelessly invoked the court's jurisdiction to interpret the Debbie Cook e-mail and enforce the parties' nondisclosure agreement.
The two cases differ factually, but for the purpose of an establishment clause argument, they're tougher to distinguish. If anything, a refund dispute can far more easily be adjudicated by neutral principles of secular law than can the question of whether Debbie Cook violated a nondisclosure agreement by sending a Scientology-jargon-filled e-mail to fellow members.
By Scientology's view, there's no inconsistency at all--on the one hand, questions over a parishioner's right to exercise her opinion is a matter well within the court's subject matter jurisdiction; but on the other, a dispute over money is sacred and non-justiciable. Well, it's consistent with Scientology at least, if not the law.
I was initially curious why Scientology didn't sue Debbie Cook in Florida and instead filed their breach action in Texas, where Cook lives. There are any number of reasons to speculate on, but perhaps Scientology attorneys feared having to argue before the same judge in the morning that Florida law holds the sky to be blue, and then in the afternoon that upon closer reading, the sky is actually orange.
Here's the kicker though: The Cook/Baumgarten NDAs have choice of law clauses requiring the court to follow Florida law. That means that not only can the Texas judge be made aware of Florida law, he/she can be made aware that Scientology apparently doesn't believe that Florida courts following Florida law can interpret the agreements it reaches with its members without violating the US Constitution. Scientology's attorneys might want to word clear "estoppel."
"Scientology's attorneys might want to word clear "estoppel." Thanks, Tikk but it's Saturday and I need a little relaxation, so I'm just not going to do the work to translate that line for our readers who maybe aren't quite up to speed on Scientologese and legal jargon. (But here's a good place to start! Our primer, "What is Scientology?")
But I think our readers will get the idea. For decades, Scientology has counted on judges, governments, and the public being ignorant of what it's up to from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. At least the readers of the Tampa Bay Times and the Voice have a chance to keep ahead of the game.
Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice...
Also, please see our primer, "What is Scientology?"
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
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