The Church of Scientology has argued that a California appeals court made a mistake when it granted members a “sweeping and unbounded” right to leave the church.
The California Court of Appeal ruled on Jan. 20 that church members cannot be bound to a perpetual agreement to resolve disputes before a religious arbitration panel after the members have left the faith.
The case arises from allegations against Danny Masterson, a church member and a star of “That ’70s Show” who faces a criminal trial on rape charges later this year. Masterson’s accusers filed suit in 2019, alleging that the church had orchestrated a “Fair Game” campaign against them in retaliation for going to the LAPD, which included stalking them, hacking their emails, tapping their phones, poisoning their pets and running them off the road.
The church denied the allegations, and it sought to force the accusers to adhere to an agreement they had signed upon joining the church decades earlier, under which they agreed to resolve all disputes in a church-run arbitration proceeding. The appeals court sided with the accusers, overturning a lower court ruling.
“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,” the three-judge panel ruled.
In a petition for rehearing filed on Thursday, Scientology’s attorneys argued that the ruling is unprecedented and makes several errors.
“This Court became the first in the nation to hold that ‘freely executed’ religious arbitration agreements cannot be enforced over the First Amendment objections of a party who claims to be a ‘non-believer,’” argued attorneys William H. Forman and Matthew D. Hinks. “This holding adopts a distinct rule concerning the enforcement of religious arbitration agreements that discriminates against religions and violates the Federal Arbitration Act (‘FAA’).”
The church’s attorneys noted that courts have repeatedly upheld religious arbitration agreements. They argued that the court’s grant of a “right to leave a faith,” is “sweeping and unbounded,” effectively allowing one party to back out of a valid agreement once they no longer wish to be bound by it.
“The right to leave the faith, as defined by this Court, includes the right to narrow the scope of freely executed contracts containing forum selection clauses that call for resolution of disputes in Church arbitration,” the church’s attorneys argued. “There is no end to this ‘right.’ … The ‘right to leave a faith’ cannot serve as a trump card to void express and unambiguous contractual provisions.”
Marci Hamilton, who argued the case for the accusers, said in an email that the court’s decision was based on “bedrock First Amendment principles.”
“There would be no right to choose your faith if religions could permanently trap you,” Hamilton said. “These women left Scientology and were harassed for reporting rapes to the authorities. Neither the Constitution nor public policy can support Scientology’s attempt to have autonomy from the law.”
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