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The Church of Scientology wants the Supreme Court to block a group of women from suing them on the grounds that they pledged to undergo religious arbitration when they expressed interest in the faith.

The case involves a group of women who previously accused That ’70s Show actor and prominent Scientologist Danny Masterson of sexual assault. (He denies those charges and will face trial this fall.) In 2019, those women sued the Church claiming it had harassed and intimidated them over the allegations. This is what the court record indicates:

… plaintiffs allege Scientology’s agents committed the following acts against them: surveilled them, hacked their security systems, filmed them, chased them, hacked their email, killed (and attempted to kill) their pets, tapped their phones, incited others to harass them, threatened to kill them, broke their locks, broke into their cars, ran them off the road, posted fake ads purporting to be from them soliciting anal sex from strangers, broke their windows, set the outside of their home on fire, went through their trash, and poisoned trees in their yards.

Setting aside the merits of the lawsuit, the Church of Scientology argued that the entire case ought to be thrown out on a technicality because those women had previously signed faith-based service contracts agreeing to a Church-run arbitration process if there were ever any legal issues with them. Those contracts are the kind signed by everyone who does something as simple as taking a course with the organization.

But now that they’ve left the Church, are those religious contracts still enforceable?

While a lower court said yes, the Court of Appeal in California rejected that reasoning earlier this year, saying the incidents occurred after the women left the Church, therefore the arbitration clause no longer applies:

The issue properly phrased is: after petitioners have left the faith, can Scientology still require that all of Scientology’s future conduct with respect to petitioners – including torts of whatever kind – be governed by Scientology law, with disputes to be resolved solely in Scientology tribunals by Scientology members? We conclude it cannot. Just like written antenuptial agreements to raise children in a particular faith are not enforceable against a parent who has left the faith, Scientology’s written arbitration agreements are not enforceable against members who have left the faith, with respect to claims for subsequent non-religious, tortious acts. To hold otherwise would bind members irrevocably to a faith they have the constitutional right to leave.

… In effect, Scientology suggests that one of the prices of joining its religion (or obtaining a single religious service) is eternal submission to a religious forum – a sub silencio waiver of petitioners’ constitutional right to extricate themselves from the faith. The Constitution forbids a price that high.

It’s common sense, really. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy, and a religious pledge made while you’re a believer can’t be used against you when you decide to leave the religion, even if it comes in the form of signed paperwork. It’s the same reason Purity pledges made when you’re an evangelical Christian hold no actual value after you leave the fold; they’re symbolic at best. The only meaning they have is whatever you decide to give it. Similarly, if you baptize a child in the Catholic Church and agree to raise the child in the faith, and then you become an atheist, you’re not legally obligated to make your kid believe Catholic lies.

Considering these women had left the Church of Scientology, then faced the alleged harassment, then sued the Church, it stands to reason they’re no longer bound by Scientology’s “Members can’t sue us” rule.

Read: Tom Cruise and Scientology – A lesson in cognitive dissonance

There was also another reason the court could’ve used against the Church of Scientology: Their arbitration process is arguably not neutral. All arbitrators “shall be Scientologists in good standing with the Mother Church,” according to the agreements they sign. It’s as if Super Bowl referees wore hats with one team’s logos on them. Why even bother? But the Court didn’t go that route; they argued that the religious contracts couldn’t be enforced against people who left the Church.

That’s why the Church’s lawyers asked the appellate court, then the California Supreme Court, to overturn the decision. Both said no. Now the Church of Scientology is going to the United States Supreme Court, filing a 144-page request this week for their case to be heard, arguing that it’s a victim of religious discrimination.

While secular entities can enforce contracts over the objections of a party that no longer wishes to be bound, churches now cannot, as long as a party asserts a change of faith. The Court of Appeal deprived churches of the contractual right that really matters – the right to enforce. And it did so expressly because churches are religious.

This unprecedented decision from the most populous state in the Union violates the fundamental constitutional right that the law should not discriminate against persons on the basis of religion. It relies on a novel theory of state action that could be deployed to
bar enforcement of any contract with a religious organization where one of the contracting parties professes to have a change of faith. The Opinion also dictates how religions may accept members into the faith

Religious organizations need this Court to remove any doubt that their contracts – including their agreements to arbitrate disputes before a religious forum – cannot be voided by a party’s professed change of mind. Churches have the right to know that their contracts are equal under law and not subject to ad hoc and unprecedented application of a state action theory by judicial officers.

The argument that contracts are enforceable, therefore religious contracts ought to be enforceable as well, is ludicrous on the surface… and yet it’s not a far cry from the way this ultra-conservative Court has been ruling for years now. In the recent Bremerton case, the Court said a public school football coach must be allowed to pray on the field after games since other coaches were allowed to use that time for secular reasons. In Carson v. Makin, the Court said Maine was obligated to pay tuition for private Christian schools because it offered the same option for private secular schools. When the Court ruling on COVID gathering restrictions, they argued that if grocery stores could remain open for larger groups of people, then places of worship could remain open too, even though those things are substantively different.

This Court has a habit of treating religion like everything else, even when it plays by an entirely different set of rules, and always to religion’s benefit at the expense of everyone else.

It’s also telling that the California Supreme Court and the Church are talking about two separate things. The California Supreme Court said the contracts weren’t enforceable because the harassment occurred after the women left the Church; it’s the timing, not the contract, that’s at issue. The Church isn’t addressing the timing issue at all to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying instead that this is really about their religious freedom (which, no doubt, appeals to many of the conservative judges).

It’s scary to think how much control the Church—or any religious organization—would have over members (and eventual former members) if the Supreme Court reverses the earlier decision. A religious belief ought to be a personal choice. It’s the responsibility of religious leaders to make you think that what they’re offering you is the best option around. If you no longer realistically have the choice to leave because you’re bound by religious doctrine, we need to stop pretending we’re dealing with a real religion. It’s something far, far worse.

And the more we’re discussing religious freedom, and the less we’re talking about just how cruel and all-encompassing Scientology’s contracts are, the better it is for the Church.

Incidentally, the women’s lawyer says the case ought to be moot since the appellate court’s ruling was “unpublished,” therefore not meant to set precedence for other cases. There’s nothing for the Supreme Court to grapple with, in other words. But given how little this Court seems to care about making any logical sense, I’m far too cynical to assume they’ll just deny a hearing.

(Update: I mistakenly assumed this case involved billion-year contracts that are signed only by Sea Org staffers. That is not the case and the article has been updated to reflect that. My apologies for the mistake and sincere thanks to those who pointed out the errors.)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.