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Husband and wife ministers were not victims of forced-labor violations by the Church of Scientology, Ninth Circuit rules, declining to decide if ministerial exception applies to Trafficking Victims Protection Act

July 26th, 2012  |  Cynthia L. Hackerott

A husband and wife, both former ministers with the Church of Scientology, did not present sufficient evidence to go to trial on their claims that the church forced them to provide labor in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), ruled the Ninth Circuit. (Headley v Church of Scientology, Int’l, July 24, 2012). Although the district court dismissed the couples claims on the ground that there were barred by the First Amendment’s ministerial exception, the Ninth Circuit declined to address that issue because it found that the couple could not establish, in any event, that the church violated the TVPA.

Factual background. While in their teens, the couple, both raised in Scientology, joined a church organization known as Sea Org. As the evangelical wing of the church, Sea Org is an elite religious order that requires its members to make a symbolic commitment to serve the church for a billion years, to live and eat communally, and to devote at least two and half hours per day on religious study. The couple both worked at the church’s 500-acre international headquarters in Gilman Hot Springs, California where the husband created and produced religious training films and films explaining Scientology to the public and the wife oversaw the internal operations Scientology’s Religious Technology Center (the center), which promotes the orthodox practice of Scientology. The wife also supervised various aspects of church governance and Scientology practice and served in a senior ecclesiastical position.

The husband and wife each successfully left the ministry the first time either tried to do so without following the usual required church procedures known as “routing out.” The husband left in January 2005 after being told that he was under investigation for embezzlement and that he could be assigned to manual labor. The wife left soon after that. Though both were followed and approached by co-religionists after they left — which, the court explained, is part of the church’s religious practice and beliefs — neither was harmed, and neither returned to the church.

Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In 2009, the husband sued the church, and the wife sued the church and the center, under the TVPA. Although the couple also brought federal and state minimum wage claim, they abandoned those claims prior to their appeal. The TVPA was enacted largely to combat the transnational crime of “trafficking in persons,” particularly defenseless, vulnerable immigrant women and children, the Ninth Circuit explained. The Act makes it a crime to “knowingly” provide or obtain the labor or services of a person “by means of” force, physical restraint, serious harm, threats, or an improper scheme (18 U.S.C. §1589(a)(1), (a)(2), (a)(4)).

Although they alleged isolated instances of physical force, the couple grounded their forced-labor claims on the theory that the church and center psychologically coerced them to provide labor. Specifically, they contended that the church and center violated the TVPA by causing them to believe that they could not leave the ministry or that they would face serious harm in doing so. They cited evidence that it was difficult to leave the headquarters location unnoticed, that the Sea Org tries to get members who leave to return, and that the Sea Org disciplines those who wish or try to leave. They also emphasized that Sea Org life was hard, noting evidence about harsh discipline, verbal reprimands, physical abuse, shunning, and the Sea Org’s policies regarding marriage and children, including their allegation that the wife was ordered and coerced to have abortions in order to keep her position. These features, they maintained, constituted psychological coercion sufficient to support their TVPA claims.

Ministerial exception. The Church argued the plaintiffs’ claims fell within the First Amendment’s ministerial exception, which exempts enforcement of state and federal statutes that would interfere with a church-minister relationship. This “ministerial exception” comes from the First Amendment principle that governmental regulation of church administration, including the appointment of clergy, impedes the free exercise of religion and constitutes impermissible government entanglement with church authority. Finding this exception applied, the district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. 

On appeal, the couple argued that adjudicating their claims would neither infringe the defendants’ religious liberty nor improperly entangle courts in the church–minister relationship. They further asserted that they each established a genuine issue of material fact on their forced-labor claims.

Evidence of forced labor lacking. In Ninth Circuit’s view, the text of the TVPA resolved this case. The record contained little evidence that the defendants obtained the couple’s labor “by means of” serious harm, threats, or other improper methods, the court concluded. Rather, the record “overwhelmingly” showed that the couple joined and voluntarily worked for the Sea Org because they believed that it was the right thing to do, because they enjoyed it, and because they thought that by working they were honoring the commitment that they each made and to which they adhered. Of particular import was the fact that the couple protested very little about their actual day-to-day jobs with the Sea Org; instead, they focused their attack on the discipline, lifestyle, and familial constraints imposed as part of Sea Org life. Yet, nothing in the record suggested that the defendants obtained the couple’s labor “by means of” those features of Sea Org life. To the contrary, the record supported the conclusion that such features caused the couple to leave the Sea Org, and thereby, stop providing labor. The husband left the Sea Org after he was told that he could be subjected to manual labor and could otherwise face discipline. The wife left after she was unable to keep her position at the center due to a restrictive marriage policy that prohibited staff members of the center from being married to members outside the center; the court observed that this was the very position in which, she now asserted, she was long forced to labor.

In addition, the court emphasized that the couple had innumerable opportunities to leave; they lived outside of the headquarters and had access to vehicles, phones, and the Internet. They did not take any of their many opportunities to leave until 2005 and chose instead to stay with the defendants and to continue providing their ministerial services.

Serious harm not shown. The text of the TVPA requires that serious harm befall an employee if she did not continue to work or that the employee be subject to a threat that compels her to remain with the employer. Here, the couple did not experience such adverse consequences or threats, the court concluded. The one adverse consequence the couple could have faced, had they taken any of their many opportunities before 2005 to leave the Sea Org, was to have been declared “suppressive persons” and thus potentially to have lost contact with family, friends, or each other. But that consequence is not “serious harm,” and warning of such a consequence is not a “threat,” under the TVPA. This case involved “permissible warnings of adverse but legitimate consequences,” rather than improper threats or coercion. 

“A church is entitled to stop associating with someone who abandons it,” the court wrote. “A church may also warn that it will stop associating with members who do not act in accordance with church doctrine. The former is a legitimate consequence, the latter a legitimate warning. Neither supports a forced-labor claim.”

The Ninth Circuit also noted that the district court “was right to recognize that courts may not scrutinize many aspects of the minister–church relationship,” but the appeals court explained that it need not reach the ministerial exception issue because the TVPA claim failed on the merits. 

Finally, although the couple assembled evidence that could potentially support tort claims (assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress), they did not bring such claims or claims based on “any of a number of other theories that might have better fit the evidence,” the court pointed out. Rather, the couple chose to pursue only the TVPA claim which was not supported by the evidence.