As “That ’70s Show” actor Danny Masterson waits for his serial rape trial to begin this fall, a separate set of lawsuits pertaining to his sexual assault allegations are making their way through the California court system (via Variety).
Several of Masterson’s accusers have said that the Church of Scientology, of which Masterson is a member, has organized a campaign of stalking and harassment against them. The women are former Scientologists, and the church claims that anyone who joins the organization is bound to settle all disputes with Scientology in a religious arbitration process that exists outside of the legal system. Because the women have all left the church, they have no interest in participating in such a process. But the church argues that they are still bound by their original agreement.
The California Court of Appeals previously ruled against the Church of Scientology, saying that its attempts to bind its members to unbreakable, lifelong contracts are illegal.
“We hold that once petitioners had terminated their affiliation with the Church, they were not bound to its dispute resolution procedures to resolve the claims at issue here, which are based on alleged tortious conduct occurring after their separation from the Church and do not implicate resolution of ecclesiastical issues,” the court wrote. “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 silentio waiver of petitioners’ constitutional right to extricate themselves from the faith. The Constitution forbids a price that high.”
Now the Church of Scientology is contesting that ruling, saying that its First Amendment rights as a religious organization have been violated. The church filed a new petition for a writ of certiorari with the hope that the California Supreme Court will intervene.
“The Opinion weaponizes the First Amendment against religious freedom, holding that the First Amendment requires limitations applicable only to religious — and not to secular — arbitration agreements,” the church wrote. It argued that it has the right to enforce these highly unusual contracts for reasons having to do with the separation of church and state.
“The notion that the First Amendment empowers the state to regulate the covenant between a church and its congregation could not be more wrong or dangerous,” the church argued. “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.”
Opponents of the church say that it doesn’t have much of a case because it is appealing an unpublished ruling that does not set precedent for future court cases. That makes it unlikely that the California Supreme Court would take another look at the ruling.