Church of Scientology Loses Dispute with Former Member
Steven T. Lowe
On January 20, 2022, a California appeals court overturned an order that would have required former members of the Church of Scientology (“Scientology”) to arbitrate their claims against the church. Three of the four former members left the Church willingly, while the fourth was told they could no longer participate. They claim stalking and harassment by the Church after their departure.
When people become members of Scientology, they are required to sign an agreement. That agreement contained a clause that requires departing members to resolve any dispute they have with Scientology in arbitration. The three-justice appellate panel ruled that holding former members to the arbitration clause in the agreement they signed when joining the church would “bind members irrevocably to a faith they have the constitutional right to leave.” The panel agreed that the same was true for the woman who did not leave the Church voluntarily.
The Church of Scientology argued that the case was something that should be handled internally, under their policies of arbitration. It further argued that by not enforcing the arbitration agreement, the court would be hostile to the church in violation of the First Amendment and that members agree to the terms of their agreement “for life”. The court disagreed, stating that the claims come out of California law and should be evaluated with a neutral legal standard by California courts, that the plaintiffs should not be bound by the agreement after they leave the church, and that binding them would deny them the constitutional right to practice (or cease practicing) any religion.
An attorney for the plaintiffs argued that there is “no meaningful right to choose one’s faith without an equally strong right to leave it,” while an attorney for the Church of Scientology claimed that the three-justice panel’s decision would lay the groundwork for unequal treatment of churches and other religious organizations under contract law.
The plaintiffs are represented by Robert W. Thompson of Thompson Law Offices and Marci A. Hamilton, a Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice and Senior Resident Scholar in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Church of Scientology International and Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International is represented by William H. Forman, David C. Scheper, and Margaret E. Dayton of Winston & Strawn.
The Religious Technology Center is represented by Robert E. Mangels and Matthew D. Hinks of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell.
Masterson is represented by Andrew B. Brettler and Martin F. Hirshland of Lavely & Singer.
The case is Bixler et al. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County et al., case number B310559, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.
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