Sunday, February 19, 2012

Headley v. Church of Scientology

In an article posted on Courthouse News Service, the details of the Headley v. Church of Scientologycase are discussed, bringing up serious issues regarding the government’s role in regulating a religious organization’s practices.  Husband and wife Claire and Marc Headley are bringing two separate cases against the Church of Scientology for forced labor, a case that if won could mean a rejection of the ministerial exception established in the First Amendment. 

The Headleys claim that they were members of the Church of Scientology’s Sea Org for nearly 15 years, during which time they were prohibited from having children and were forced into having two abortions.  Claire Headley claimed that individuals who left the church were threatened, coerced to return, and deprived of food and water in addition to other punishments.  Marc Headley claims to have experienced physical abuse from other ministers at the church and that the church threatened he would not be able to leave the church without first going through a “routing out” process in which he would perform labor without pay. 
The Headleys first attempted to sue the Church of Scientology in 2010 based on the terms of Trafficking Victims Act which “prohibits…obtaining the labor or services of a person by means of force, threats of force, physical restraints, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person” (US Dept. of Justice).   Their attempt was unsuccessful, deemed by the courts to fall under the ministerial exemption provided by the First Amendment.  Thus, the Headleys, as ministers in a religious organization were incapable of filing a civil rights case against their employer.  Now, the Headleys are appealing that decision. 
However, this case is about more than simply the Headleys’ claim of involuntary servitude.  It is yet another example of the government’s role in regulating the practices of religious organizations.  While the ministerial exception allows religious institutions to conduct their organization without government interference, individual constitutional rights are also at stake here.  As we’ve seen in other cases in US history, the government has long been caught between these two positions-that of ensuring civil rights and protecting the freedom of religious organizations.  Recalling the Reynolds v. United States (1879) case, the court ruled that one’s religion cannot excuse his actions or practices.  To do so, according to the court, would be to be set religious law above the law of the land.  In other words, a religious organization can believe what they want, but when the actions and practices are “subversive of good order” the courts can regulate that activity. 
Thus, it would seem that in the Headley’s case the government should step in to prevent the subversive actions of the church.  Laws meant to protect the freedom of a religious organization to hire upon their own discernment should not interfere with the ability of individuals to file a civil liberty case against his/her employer.  Religious freedom should not come at the price of an individual’s first amendment protection under the law. 


kathryn y. said...

The final statement that is made in your post is something that our class should really take the moment to ponder. By becoming legally involved in practices of religious traditions, what does this mean for the tradition and further for the law? For me this raises questions as to how moral judgements are still associated with Protestant morals and further that if the government begins to regulate religious actions then is this not a direct violation of individual consciousness?

joycek said...

My first reaction after reading this article, was to agree that there should some limits and regulation to be imposed on churches – that religious freedom should not come at the price of an individual’s first amendment protection under the law. However, the Reynolds v. United States decision made a strong statement about ecclesiastical disputes, that the civil courts exercise no jurisdiction in these matters. If this matter were to be heard at court, it would have to inquire into doctrinal theology, customs, and more. Detangling the rights of the church and rights of the individual would be messy, if not impossible - and like kathryn said - would be associated with the history of Protestant moral judgments.

Angela S. said...

I think that the protection of religious freedom should include the right to leave an organization. Perhaps that is an overly individualized view of things, but I do believe that people should have the right to change their mind and willing give up their membership in an organization that they no longer agree with. That organization should not be able to put them through some hardship in order for them to leave. The complicated question I think though will actually end up revolving around what they signed and what is legal to sign away and what is not.

Anne G said...

This case is very complex. It seems to be more about the 13th Amendment and forced servitude than the First Amendment free exercise clause. However, if the Headleys were subjected to physical abuse, isolation,forced to work against their will and threatened - then I believe the court must decide in their favor. What puzzles me is why the ministerial exception clause is factored in since the court cannot look at what the church teaches. Also, I don't believe being born into a religion should equate to your being forced to stay in it.

joycek said...

I stand corrected, it was the Watson v. Jones case (80 U.S. 679) which discusses 'jurisdiction,' not Reynolds v. U.S.

Christiana Torere said...

The first question that I asked myself after reading this article, was when did the Headley’s determine that the Church of Scientology was wrong? The couple was obviously brain washed and it took them 15 years to realize it wasn’t right, but what took so long. This particular cult like church reminds me of an older church in Atlanta, called the House of Prayer. Similar events took place, but the events were far worst because children were involved. The government step in and legal actions were taken. I assume that this will be a similar scenario with this case, but I believe further investigation will be done to determine the severity of the case.