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Monday, August 13, 2012

Headley v. Church of Scientology: Forced Labor Claims v. Church of Scientology Fail Because Plaintiffs Could Have Left Church

Headley v. Church of Scientology International, ---F.3d --- (9th Cir. 7/24/12) presents unique issues regarding human trafficking and forced labor and gives a remarkable view of the workings of the Church of Scientology.  I find the opinion's introduction fascinating and will quote it at length.  
This case centers around the Church of Scientology International (the Church) and its component Sea Organization (or Sea Org). The Church exercises overall ecclesiastical management of the Scientology religion. The Sea Org is an elite religious order of the Church and acts as Scientology’s evangelical wing. The Sea Org demands much of its members, renders strict discipline, imposes stringent ethical and lifestyle constraints, and goes to great efforts to retain clergy and to preserve the integrity of the ministry. These features of the Sea Org flow from the teachings and goals of the Scientology religion.  
Scientology teaches that man is an immortal spiritual being that, over time, becomes distressed as his mind experiences moments of pain or lowered consciousness.  Scientology maintains, however, that man can overcome that distress—he can become “clear”—by using methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology aims to disseminate Hubbard’s teachings to  “clear the planet”—that is, to help enough people to overcome spiritual distress to free the planet of crime, war, and irrationality. That effort is entrusted largely to the Sea Org.   
Before embarking on that effort, each Sea Org member makes a symbolic one-billion-year commitment to serve the Church.  A member may make that commitment only after undergoing extensive training and study, passing a fitness exam, and obtaining a Church-issued certification attesting that the applicant is qualified for Sea Org life.  During their training, Sea Org members learn that the ministry will require them to work long hours without material compensation, to live communally, to adhere to strict ethical standards, and to be subject to firm discipline for ethical transgressions.  The Church, in turn, agrees to provide Sea Org members with all living necessities and a weekly allowance for incidental items.     
The Sea Org’s lifestyle constraints include strict policies on outside communications, marriage, and children.  Sea Org members’ mail is censored and phone calls are monitored as part of ministry discipline and policy. Because Sea Org life may at any moment require a member indefinitely to serve anywhere in the world, the Church prohibits Sea Org members from having children unless they leave the order. A Sea Org member who chooses to have a child must transfer out of the Sea Org (but can still work for the Church).  And staff members in Scientology’s Religious Technology Center (the Center)—which promotes the orthodox practice of Scientology—are permitted to marry only other Center staff.   
Sea Org members learn that strict discipline is central to preserving the integrity of Scientology’s ministry. If a member fails to meet Scientology’s ethical standards, he may be disciplined with verbal warnings or rebukes, loss of privileges, removal from a post, diminution of responsibilities, manual labor, or expulsion. Sea Org members also participate in religious training and practices, including “confessionals.” In a confessional, a member confesses transgressions and may then be absolved or disciplined.   
This demanding, ascetic life is not for everyone—and is not even for many of those who go through the Sea Org’s extensive training and preparation. Members thus often wish to leave the Sea Org for a more normal life. A member may formally withdraw his vows and leave the ministry through a process called “routing out.” Routing out allows a member to remain a Scientologist in good standing. The process involves filling out a form and normally includes participating in Scientology ethics programs. Routing out can take weeks or months. During that time members are excused from their posts but are expected to continue serving the Church by performing chores.    
Some Scientologists leave the Sea Org without routing out —a practice known as “blowing”—but the Sea Org discourages members from doing so. When a member leaves without routing out, other members may band together to try to locate that member and attempt to  persuade him to return to the Sea Org.  Scientologists believe that such an effort—known as a “blow drill”—is integral to their efforts to clear the planet and to help their members (even departed ones) achieve salvation. So important is this to the Church that a blown member may be disciplined if he returns or may be declared a “suppressive person.” Being so declared is akin to being excommunicated or shunned, and can cause blown members to lose contact with Scientologist family or friends. 
Plaintiffs Marc and Claire Headley were members of the Church and the Sea Org.  After leaving the Sea Org, they sued for violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits an employer from obtaining another’s labor  “by means of” force, physical restraint, serious harm, threats, or an improper scheme. 22 U.S.C. 7100 et seq.  The district court granted summary judgment for the Church, and the plaintiffs appealed.  

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the plaintiffs had not shown that the Church obtained their labor "by means of" serious harm, threats, or other improper methods. The Court found that the plaintiffs worked voluntarily for the Church and could not show that that "serious harm" would befall them "if they did not continue to work" or that threats “compel[ed] [them] to remain" with the employer. The threat that they could in effect be excommunicated from the Church if they left is not "'serious harm'—and warning of such a consequence is not a 'threat'—under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act."  

The Court did not reach the question of whether the ministerial exception would bar a claim under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. See, e.g., Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 702 (2012) (discussed here).  

The opinion is available here

1 comment:

  1. Nice neat little summary of the case.

    Someday all of L. Ron Hubbard's private despatch traffic, is released, that would be helpful.

    One private Hubbard despatch, specifially to Luten Taylor, a Sea Org member holding the "Senior Recruitment Officer" position, it's a Hubbard writing which details that Recruitment personnel for the Sea Org must give adequate reality to new recruits of the rigors of Sea Org life.

    I run the 866-XSEAORG toll free advice line, and even this year, the church of Scientology's Recruitment Officers for the Sea Org are chronically underplaying the rigors of the Sea Org lifetime staff commitment.

    Thanks for the great detailed legal layout.

    Scientology won't tell the dirty details of staff life, and it takes ex members to keep updating the outside world of the conditions.

    Village Voice editor Tony Ortega is my pick of the best coverage up to the minute on Scientology, for family wishing the latest from all things Scientology.

    I help give parents and family reality on Sea Org life, so as to advise new Sea Org potential recruits, free.

    I've found, in the 4 years of running the toll free 866-XSEAORG number, that the majority of people simply wise up quickly, and compare the bold positive claims of Sea Org life, to the realities of the Catch 22 and over pressure lifestyle; which results in new recruits quitting on their own, without any need to "help" them see how bad it really is.

    They see how bad it is, and get out quit, overwhelmingly.

    Those who stick it out for a couple decades, to varying degrees feel betrayed, once they find that the movement is not achieving its grand claimed goals.

    Chuck Beatty
    ex Sea Org (1975-2003)


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