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Can former Scientologists take the church to court? Or are religious tribunals the only recourse?

Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

After Chrissie Bixler told the LAPD that Scientologist and actor Danny Masterson had raped her, strangers showed up at her home, filmed her family and peeked in her windows. Two of her dogs mysteriously died, one by eating meat laced with rat poison. Her security system was hacked. Someone posted ads in her name on Craigslist soliciting men for anal sex.

Bixler made these allegations in a lawsuit, charging that Scientology waged a campaign to terrorize her after failing to dissuade her from reporting Masterson to the Los Angeles Police Department. Other women joined the lawsuit after telling police that Masterson had sexually assaulted them — which he has denied — saying they too had been stalked and placed under surveillance.

But some of the women, including Bixler, formerly belonged to Scientology, and like other members signed agreements to submit any disputes to binding arbitration before a three-member board of practicing Scientologists. California courts are now trying to decide whether the agreements may be enforced and the lawsuit decided by a Scientology tribunal instead of a jury.

The case has brought attention to a practice known as “religious arbitration,” in which Christians, Jews, Muslims and now Scientologists resolve disputes ranging from divorce to real estate to employment outside of a courtroom. The practice has long been upheld by secular courts, which by law cannot interfere with religious doctrinal matters.

In binding religious arbitration, disputes may be decided according to the tenets of a religion. Awards can be appealed to secular courts, which in most cases uphold them.

“No court has ever said that because this form of arbitration is religious, we are going to discriminate against it and not allow it to be enforced,” said Michael A. Helfand, an expert on religious law who teaches at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

 

In addition to the lawsuit, Masterson — who starred in “That ’70s Show” and “The Ranch” — faces a criminal trial. He has pleaded not guilty, and Scientology has denied the women’s charges.

A Los Angeles trial judge and an intermediate state appeals court ruled that the lawsuit had to go to binding Scientology arbitration. The California Supreme Court, which has been skeptical of some arbitration agreements, ordered the Los Angeles-based 2nd District Court of Appeal to reconsider.

In similar cases, Scientology has prevailed, at least so far.

Luis Garcia, 63, an Irvine resident and self-employed businessman, sued the church for fraud after he said he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization over his 28 years as a member. He objected to arbitration, and the case was heard in Florida, the headquarters for Scientology.

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