The Church of Scientology won an important victory in federal court this week when a judge dismissed two lawsuits that accused the church of labor law violations, human trafficking and forced abortions.
Claire and Marc Headley, who left Scientology in 2005, said the church controlled them with threats of harsh punishment and other tactics that prevented them from leaving the Sea Organization, Scientology's religious order.
But U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer ruled Thursday that the Sea Org is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion.
The judge ruled that the Headleys performed religious duties and that the Sea Org falls within the "ministerial exception" commonly granted to religious groups in employment cases. The exception prevents the court from prying into the church's internal workings to get to the bottom of the Headleys' allegations.
Continuing the case, the judge wrote, would require the court to analyze "the reasonableness of the methods" used to discipline Sea Org members and to prevent them from leaving. As for Claire Headley's allegation that she was forced to have two abortions, Fischer said the court would have had to review Scientology's doctrine prohibiting Sea Org members from raising children.
"Inquiry into these allegations would entangle the court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally motivated practices of the Sea Org," wrote Fischer, a judge in the Central District of California.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis called the Headleys apostates and "defrocked church ministers" who brought 'salacious allegations" against the church. He added: "Scientology wins."
The church did not return calls seeking comment on the ruling.
The Headleys said the blanket dismissals surprised them, and they plan to appeal.
"It basically shows that if you've got enough high-powered attorneys and you've got enough money to throw at a problem that you can make it go away," Marc Headley said. "That's historically been the case with them. In the end, they do make the problem go away."