Religious institutions are exempt from human trafficking laws?

Apparently so if Judge Fischer’s ruling is anything to go by. The full summary judgement of the ruling is here (40KB PDF). The following quote is the entirety of reasoning given by the court concerning the question of human trafficking, and is well worth reading:

A.  The Ministerial Exception Applies to Plaintiff’s Trafficking Victims
Protection Act Claim

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) prohibits, inter alia, knowingly obtaining the labor or services of a person by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person.  18 U.S.C. § 1589(a)(1).  A victim of a violation of the TVPA may bring a civil action against the perpetrator.  18 U.S.C. § 1595.

Defendants argue that this claim fails because of the First Amendment’s ministerial exception.  The Court agrees.  “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment provide that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”  Alcazar v. Corp. of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, 598 F.3d 668, 671 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting U.S. Const. Amend. I).

In determining whether a statute implicates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, courts must balance: (1) the magnitude of the statute’s impact upon the exercise of the religious belief, (2) the existence of a compelling state interest justifying the burden imposed upon the exercise of the religious belief, and (3) the extent to which recognition of an exemption from the statute would impede the objectives sought to be advanced by the state. Id. at 672 (internal quotation marks omitted).  “[E]ven in pursuit of a compelling state interest, the balancing test contemplates that some statutes may still have such an adverse impact on religious liberty as to render judicial review of a Church’s compliance with the statute a violation of the Free Exercise Clause.”  Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

The “rationale for protecting a church’s personnel decisions concerning its ministers is the necessity of allowing the church to choose its representatives using whatever criteria it deems relevant.”  Id. at 674 (internal quotation marks omitted).  Even so, “[w]here the church provides no doctrinal nor protected-choice based rationale for its alleged actions, and indeed expressly disapproves of the alleged actions,” then the rational for applying the exception under this clause most likely does not exist.  Bollard v. California Province of the Society of Jesus, 196 F.3d 940, 948 (9th Cir. 1999).

In determining whether a statute implicates the Establishment Clause, courts must assess: “(1) whether the statute has a secular legislative purpose, (2) whether its principal or primary effect advances or inhibits religion, and (3) whether it fosters an excessive government entanglement with religion.”  Alcazar 598 F.3d at 672 (internal quotation marks, ellipsis, and brackets omitted).

Entanglement issues arise whenever the Court must “evaluate religious doctrine or the ‘reasonableness’ of the religious practices followed by the church.”  Bollard, 196 F.3d at 950.  “Entanglement has substantive and procedural components.”  Alcazar, 598 F.3d at 672.  “On a substantive level, applying a statute to the clergy-church employment relationship creates a constitutionally impermissible entanglement with religion if the church’s freedom to choose its ministers is at stake.”  Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).  “As for the procedural dimension, the very process of civil court inquiry into the clergy-church relationship can be sufficient entanglement.”  Id. at 672-73.  In other words, “[i]t is not only the conclusions that may be reached by the court which may impinge on rights guaranteed by the Religion Clauses, but also the very process of inquiry leading to findings and conclusions.”  Id. at 673 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

The Ninth Circuit has interpreted these clauses to “compel a ministerial exception from neutral statutory regimes that interfere with the church-clergy employment relationship.”3 Alcazar, 598 F.3d at 673.  This exception exists because “government interference with the church-minister relationship inherently burdens religion.”  Id.  It provides protection from statutory liability if a church claims that the challenged conduct is doctrinal; courts “do not scrutinize doctrinal justifications because it is not [their] role to determine whether the Church had a secular or religious reason for the alleged mistreatment . . . .”  Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, 375 F.3d 951, 959 (9th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).  This means that “[a] church’s selection of its ministers is unfettered, and its true reasons – whatever they may be – are . . . unassailable.”  Id. at 961.  “Because the ministerial exception is constitutionally compelled, it applies as a matter of law across statutes, both state and federal, that would interfere with the church-minister relationship.”  Alcazar, 598 F.3d at 673.  The exception “encompasses all tangible employment actions and disallows lawsuits for damages based on lost or reduced pay.”  Id. at 674 (internal quotation marks omitted).  “A tangible employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”  Elvig, 375 F.3d at 960-61 (internal quotation marks omitted).  Moreover, “a minister’s working conditions . . . are a part of the minister’s employment relationship with the church.”  Werft v. Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 377 F.3d 1099, 1103 (9th Cir. 2004).

The Court has already determined as a matter of law that Defendants are religious institutions and that Plaintiff served as a minister for them.  (Docket No. 100.) Therefore, Plaintiff’s TVPA claim cannot be grounded on conduct shielded from judicial scrutiny by the ministerial exception.  Plaintiff does not dispute that prior to joining the Sea Org she was aware of the challenges such membership would entail.  She also has not put forward any admissible evidence that she joined the Sea Org against her will.  Even so, she argues that she is a victim under the TVPA because: (1) Defendants coerced her into having two abortions; (2) Defendants placed restrictions on Sea Org members’ ability to leave; (3) Defendants pursue Sea Org members who leave without routing out and attempt to dissuade them from their decision; (4) Defendants discipline Sea Org members who even express a desire to leave; (5) Defendants censor Sea Org members’ communications; (6) Defendants’ discipline of Sea Org members includes sleep and eating deprivation and heavy manual labor; and (7) Defendants attempted to force Plaintiff to divorce her husband.  (Pl.’s Opp’n 17 18.)

In contrast to Bollard and Elvig, Defendants here represent that the challenged conduct was doctrinally motivated.  (E.g., Defs.’ Reply 10-11, 15-18.)  Therefore, inquiry into these allegations would entangle the Court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally-motivated practices of the Sea Org.  It would also require the Court to analyze the criteria Defendants use to choose their ministers and the reasonableness of the methods used to enforce church policy and encourage members to remain with the organization and the religion itself.  For example, inquiry concerning the pressure Plaintiff allegedly faced after becoming pregnant would require review of Scientology’s doctrine prohibiting Sea Org members from raising children.  In order to determine whether Defendants’ means of persuading members to remain with the Sea Org, etc. fall within the purview of the TVPA, a trier of fact must inquire into Scientology’s policies, practices, and scriptures.

The Court rejects Plaintiff’s argument that the challenged conduct was not doctrinally motivated.  The argument is premised on the deposition testimony of Defendants’ representatives that Scientology does not allow involuntary servitude, forced labor, or human trafficking.  (Pl.’s Opp’n 26-28.)  But the argument is circular.  The questions did not address the actual conduct alleged by Plaintiff.  (See id.; see also Defs.’ Reply 29-30.)  Determining whether Scientology’s practices of routing out, censorship, or heavy manual labor as a form of discipline, for example, constitute involuntary servitude within the meaning of the TVPA is precisely the type of entanglement that the Religion Clauses prohibit.

The Court also rejects Plaintiff’s argument that the ministerial exception categorically does not apply to claims under the TVPA.  The only support for this argument comes from an out-of-circuit magistrate judge’s report and recommendation that does not even cite to Ninth Circuit decisions on the ministerial exception, let alone apply the exception in accordance with Ninth Circuit case law.  Moreover, the report’s categorical exclusion of the TVPA from the ministerial exception appears contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s articulation of the exception.

For these reasons, this claim fails.

In essence the above is claiming that laws regarding human trafficking do not apply to religious institutions. Moreover, according to this ruling “…Defendants [Chruch of Scientology] here represent that the challenged conduct was doctrinally motivated”.

This conduct includes “(1) Defendants coerced her into having two abortions; (2) Defendants placed restrictions on Sea Org members’ ability to leave; (3) Defendants pursue Sea Org members who leave without routing out and attempt to dissuade them from their decision; (4) Defendants discipline Sea Org members who even express a desire to leave; (5) Defendants censor Sea Org members’ communications; (6) Defendants’ discipline of Sea Org members includes sleep and eating deprivation and heavy manual labor; and (7) Defendants attempted to force Plaintiff to divorce her husband.”

To have the Church of Scientology not only admit that such conduct occurred, but that they claim such conduct is protected under the ‘Freedom of Religion’ clause is also staggering. That the court granted this claim is staggering. Headley has already indicted her desire to appeal the ruling, and it would seem she has grounds to do so. In rulings such as the above there are two components. There are ‘findings of fact’ and ‘findings of law’. The former is fairly obvious, while the latter is the courts judgement of how applicable law applies to those findings of fact. In the current case, the court has determined findings of fact indicating that plaintiff was subjected to the abuses she has alleged. The court simply ruled those abuses irrelevant when applied to a religious institution.

There appears to be precedent conflicting with the present court’s opinion. From Employment Division et al V Smith, US Supreme Court 1990:

We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition. As described succinctly by Justice Frankfurter in Minersville School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Gobitis, 310 U. S. 586, 594-595 (1940): “Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities (footnote omitted).” We first had occasion to assert that principle in Reynolds v. United States, 98 U. S. 145 (1879), where we rejected the claim that criminal laws against polygamy could not be constitutionally applied to those whose religion commanded the practice. “Laws,” we said, “are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Id., at 166-167.

Subsequent decisions have consistently held that the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a “valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).”

The Church of Scientology has claimed, in previous court cases, its conduct to be ‘religious expression’ deserving of constitutional protection. Some courts have disagreed, and in some cases in very strong terms. From Wollersheim v Church of Scientology 1989:

Scientology asserts all four courses of conduct comprising the intentional infliction claim are forms of religious expression protected by the freedom of religion clauses of the United States and California Constitutions. We conclude some would not be protected religious activity even if Wollersheim freely participated. We further conclude none of these courses of conduct qualified as protected religious activity in Wollersheim’s case. Here they occurred in a coercive atmosphere appellant created through threats of retribution against those who would leave the organization. To explain our conclusions it is necessary to examine the parameters and rationale of the religious freedom provisions in some depth.

(6) B. Even Assuming the Retributive Conduct Sometimes Called “Fair Game” Is a Core Practice of Scientology It Does Not Qualify for Constitutional Protection

We are not certain a deliberate campaign to financially ruin a former member or the dishonoring of debts owed that member qualify as “religious practices” of Scientology. But if they do, we have no problem concluding the state has a compelling secular interest in discouraging these practices. (See pp. 884-886, supra.) Accordingly, we hold the freedom of religion guaranties of the United States and California Constitutions do not immunize these practices from civil liability for any injuries they cause to “targets” such as Wollersheim.

One would hope that the notion a religious institution be given free reign to perform human trafficking be struck down on appeal. Employment Division et al v Smith US Supreme Court may have summed it up best – “It is a parade of horribles because it is horrible to contemplate that federal judges will regularly balance against the importance of general laws the significance of religious practice.”

2 Responses

  1. Again, more evidence that religions are exempt from democracy.


  2. This is an excellent analysis of a complex, and quickly evolving situation.

    Abortion is a “hot button” in the United States, especially in the coming mid-term elections.

    I will be referencing this superb analysis on several blogs and letters/comments and providing a link to this website. Scientology continues to make a mockery of religion in the USA. If enough true churches and religious groups are willing to step forward and help the Headley’s with their appeal, then hopefully this stunning decision can be reversed quickly.

    Thank you again for your clear headed thinking … this time of confusion.


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