Scientology tiff hits Bexar court

San Anotnio Home Page, Texas/February 4, 2012

One side argued passionately about freedom of speech and religion, and the other side spoke matter-of-factly about contractual obligations.

And at the end of a Friday hearing in San Antonio about a widely watched legal fight between the Church of Scientology and a former top church official who sent a critical email on New Year's Eve, the judge basically punted.

With a trial set for next week on the church's suit against Debbie Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, Judge Janet Littlejohn declined to lift a temporary restraining order after being assured it will not cripple their defense.

"There is no reason you cannot accumulate evidence and talk to witnesses for trial next week," she told Cook's lawyer, Ray Jeffrey.

"Other than that, they are restrained by the order," she added.

Jeffrey had argued unsuccessfully that the church cannot muzzle Cook and Baumgarten, without proving specific damages, regardless of any agreements they signed.

"Prior restraint of speech is presumptively unconstitutional," he argued.

"She didn't defame anyone. She sent out a message that was laudatory to Scientology and urged Scientologists to remain true to their faith," he added.

Littlejohn left that for the trial judge to resolve. She left the prohibition against talking to the media intact, and both defendants left the courtroom without commenting.

The legal fight here is part of a larger, ongoing church struggle that has included the departure of various high church officials and the emergence of self-styled reformers.

Founded six decades ago by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the author of "Dianetics," Scientology's focus is on self-betterment and spiritual advancement. But its history is ridden with conflict and litigation, and it wasn't until 1993 that the IRS recognized it as a tax-exempt church.

In the courtroom Friday was Mark Rathbun, another former high church official, who now lives in Ingleside on the Bay, and maintains a blog highly critical of church leaders.

"This is huge. These draconian silence agreements are really protecting the most heinous actions going on the upper levels of the church," he said.

"This is a test case as to whether these agreements are legally binding and enforceable," added Rathbun.

All told, Cook spent 29 years in the church, rising to become the leader of its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.

But when Cook and Baumgarten left in 2007, each accepted a $50,000 payment and also signed a strict and comprehensive nondisclosure agreement.

"Mrs. Cook is one of the most recognizable faces of Scientology to followers in the United States and overseas," Jeffrey said at the Friday hearing.

"She managed more than 1,000 employees and a budget of over $100 million a year," he added.

In response to e-mailed questions, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said the dispute is no more than "a breach-of-contract case."

"Debbie Cook wants to divert attention away from her lack of compliance with the terms she voluntarily agreed to in signing the contract," she added.

Pouw said Cook has been expelled from the church and never held an important post.

"She has not attended church in years and has become a squirrel. A squirrel is someone who alters Scientology Scripture; a heretic," she added.

And when Cook sent an e-mail to other Scientologists questioning church practices and calling for a return to the true path, it triggered a quick response.

On Jan. 27, the church sued the couple in Bexar County, where they live, accusing them of violating the confidentiality agreements by sending out a "disparaging e-mail."

Since then, the suit notes, the e-mail has been widely copied and also reported in the national and international media, including the Tampa Bay Times, NPR News and "Good Morning America."

The suit claims damages of at least $300,000 and asks that the couple be ordered to comply with their nondisclosure agreements.

In arguing for keeping the restraining order, George Spencer Jr., representing the church, said the issue was a simple contractual violation.

"People can, by contract, agree to injunctions that would otherwise violate their constitutional rights," he argued.

"The defendants each expressly promised to refrain from doing certain things. When Mrs. Baumgarten sent her e-mail out on New Years Eve, she violated that agreement."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.