It's not every day that a church sues a former member for $10 million, but then the Church of Scientology is not your typical church.
Nor is Gerry Armstrong, a longtime church critic and former Marin County resident, your typical churchgoer.
The church has accused Armstrong of breaching an agreement stating that he could not talk about the Church of Scientology in public. This week, a Marin County judge set the trial date for the case for April 9.
Armstrong is a former Scientology insider who joined the church in 1969, left the fold in 1981 and later became one of the movement's harshest critics. He was sued by the church in 1984 for allegedly stealing thousands of pages of private papers that shed new light on the movement's mysterious founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard.
Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer and freelance philosopher, founded the Church of Scientology in the 1950s and died in 1986.
Today, Scientology describes itself as "the only major new religion established in the 20th century," as a bridge to increased awareness and spiritual freedom.
But Armstrong says his 20-year legal battle against Scientology reveals that "the cult is a flagrant human rights destroyer, and consequently a societal danger, and indeed a willful pariah.''
"This is the sixth time they have sued me,'' says Armstrong, who now lives in Chilliwack, a town in British Columbia. "They have all the resources and all the power, but they don't have justice or the law on their side.''
During his years in Scientology, Armstrong says he worked as an intelligence officer and communications officer and compiled documents for a church-sponsored biography of Hubbard.
He says he has been in Scientology's sights since the church filed its 1984 lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court to get control of Hubbard's private papers.
Judge Paul Breckenridge Jr., who presided over that case, issued a ruling in which he called Hubbard "virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements.'' The judge also said the Scientology founder was "charismatic and highly capable of motivating, organizing, controlling and manipulating his adherents.''
In settling that case in 1986, Armstrong agreed to return the documents. He says that the church paid him $515,000 and that his attorney persuaded him to sign an agreement promising to "maintain strict confidentiality and silence with respect to his experiences with the Church of Scientology.''
That agreement states that Armstrong would pay $50,000 for every utterance about Scientology.
The church now maintains that Armstrong has violated the agreement at least 201 times and owes it just over $10 million.
"We will not be intimidated by someone like Gerry Armstrong,'' said Andrew Wilson, a Sausalito lawyer who represents Scientology in the case. "We believe contracts are important and should be enforced.''
In court papers filed last week in Marin County Superior Court, Armstrong says he signed the agreement under "shudder-inducing" duress.
Scientologist lawyers, he says, are using the agreement to violate his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religious freedom.
Armstrong, who is defending himself in the current lawsuit, also charges in court documents that the church put him on a list of "suppressive persons'' and has systematically harassed him.
That harassment, Armstrong says, included assault, threats and burglaries. Church agents have "terrorized him for 22 years and have subjected him to a vicious global black propaganda campaign.''
"Scientology has waged a total war of attrition on Armstrong that continues to this day,'' he states in his own defense.
In court Tuesday, Wilson said Armstrong's court filings were full of opinions and "salacious material."
Wilson noted that Armstrong did not deny repeatedly violating the 1986 confidentiality agreement and had refused to comply with previous court rulings against him, including an earlier summary judgment by Marin County Superior Court Judge Gary Thomas, prompting a warrant for Armstrong's arrest.
"Armstrong, a longtime resident of Marin County, is presently a fugitive from this jurisdiction, having fled this jurisdiction and relocated to Canada to avoid incarceration,'' Wilson states in his court filing.
In a telephone interview Tuesday from Canada, Armstrong conceded that there was a warrant for his arrest in Marin County.
But he said he was hoping to persuade Judge Duryee to set aside the warrant and allow him to argue his case next month in Marin County.