Two former ministers' lawsuit loses on appeal

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals says a married couple failed to show their rights had been violated

The Press-Enterprise/July 24, 2012

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Church of Scientology in an appeal by two former ministers who worked at the Golden Era Production enclave near Gilman Hot Springs, saying the pair had not proven a violation of their rights under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Married couple Claire and Marc Headley, members of the church's elite Sea Organization until they left in 2005, claimed that along with the tough disciplinary requirements for Sea Org members, they personally experienced and saw others exposed to physical and verbal abuse.

They had sued both the Church of Scientology International and the Religious Technology Center in 2009. A lower court judge dismissed their suit, setting the stage for the appeal.

The appellate court affirmed that the examples of abuse the Headleys cited did not amount to issues worthy of trial; that the church's policies did not violate the protection act under which the Headleys had sued; and that evidence indicated "the Headleys had innumerable opportunities to leave" the compound near Hemet.

The ruling also remarked that the Headleys did not make specific damage claims in other areas of the law such as assault, battery or false imprisonment, despite the allegations included in the suit by the former ministers.

The Headleys were raised in Scientology and joined the Sea Org in their teens — Marc in 1989 and Claire in 1991. They were married in 1992, according to court's outline of the case.

"Like others who joined the Sea Org, they knew they would work long, hard hours without material compensation," the ruling said. "They each worked more than 100 hours a week, while the Church paid their living expenses and provided them each with a $50 weekly stipend."

Acknowledged Sea Org rules included no children for married couples because of possible worldwide assignments at a moment's notice; censored mail; monitored phone calls; Internet access only by permission; and discipline that could include manual labor.

Marc Headley created and produced religious training films while Claire Headley oversaw the center's internal operations and other duties. She advanced to a senior ecclesiastical position, the opinion said.

Disciplinary manual labor included yard or kitchen work. But among Marc Headley's disciplinary assignments in 2004 was an order to hand-clean dried human excrement from an aeration pond; in another instance Claire Headley was denied dining hall privileges for six to eight months in 2002. She subsisted on protein bars and water and lost about 30 pounds, the opinion said.

Claire Headley said she had two abortions in the mid-1990s.

Marc and Claire Headley claimed they observed and experienced verbal reprimands and physical abuse while at the Sea Org, according to the ruling. "A senior Scientology executive physically struck Marc on two occasions and another official punched him on another occasion. A co-worker shoved Claire once," the opinion said.

But three-judge appellate concluded the Headleys "have simply not marshaled enough evidence" to show their case met the "serious harm" criteria outlined in the trafficking act, especially when weighed against the established discipline and doctrine of Scientology. Government intrusion into the relationship between a religious institution and its ministers is barred by a rule called ministerial exception.

The opinion also noted, "The Headleys abandoned claims under federal and state minimum wage laws. And although the Headleys marshaled evidence of potentially tortuous conduct, they did not bring claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or any number of other theories that might have better fit the evidence," wrote Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain.

"The record does not allow conclusion that the Church or the Center violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act," the judge wrote.

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