The Church of Scientology has been involved in court disputes in several countries. In some cases, when the Church has initiated the dispute, questions have been raised as to its motives. The Church says that its use of the legal system is necessary to protect its intellectual property and its right to freedom of religion. Critics say that most of the Church's claims are designed to harass Suppressive Persons, people who impede the progress of the Scientology movement.
In the years since its inception, the Church of Scientology's lawsuits filed against newspapers, magazines, government agencies (including the United States tax collecting unit, the IRS), and individuals have numbered in the thousands. In 1991, Time magazine estimated that the Church spends an average of about $20 million per year on various legal actions, and it is the exclusive client of several law firms. According to a U.S. District Court Memorandum of Decision in 1993, Scientologists "have abused the federal court system by using it, inter alia, to destroy their opponents, rather than to resolve an actual dispute over trademark law or any other legal matter. This constitutes 'extraordinary, malicious, wanton, and oppressive conduct.' ... It is abundantly clear that plaintiffs sought to harass the individual defendants and destroy the church defendants through massive over-litigation and other highly questionable litigation tactics. The Special Master has never seen a more glaring example of bad faith litigation than this." Rulings such as this have classified the Church of Scientology as a chronically vexatious litigant. Legal disputes initiated by Scientology against its former members, the media or others include the following:
- Religious discrimination cases, including recognition as a religious organization.
- Copyright infringement cases. Scientology's religious documents are copyrighted, and many are available only to members who pay for higher levels of courses and auditing.
- Libel and slander cases.
In the past, the Church has been involved in criminal court cases (e.g. United States v. Hubbard), but increasingly, lawsuits are being brought by former Church members against the Church, such as:
- Human Trafficking and Forced Labor (Claire and Mark Headley v. Church of Scientology, Int'l)
- Fraud and Misrepresentation
- Libel (e.g. Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto).
The Church's view
Scientologists say that the church's main goal is to be recognized as a religion, which on occasion has met resistance from opponents (including national governments), and this has forced it to have recourse to the courts.
One such area is recognition as an official religion in various governments around the world. Scientology's path to legal recognition as a religion in New Zealand took 48 years and several lawsuits. Other efforts have had less success. In 1999, the United Kingdom rejected an application for charity status and the attendant tax benefits. The church applied for Canadian tax-exempt status in 1998, was reportedly rejected in 1999, and is not registered as a charity as of 2009. In Austria, the organization withdrew its application to register as a "religious confessional community". The activities of the Church of Scientology are not prohibited or limited in any way in the European Union and Scientology enjoys the full freedom of any church in these countries.
Some governments, however, have labeled the church as a cult. Although the status is not changed or the freedom is not limited, German and Belgian government entities have accused Scientology of violating the human rights of its members and therefore called it a "totalitarian cult" and a "commercial enterprise". In 1995, a parliamentary report in France classified it, along with 172 other religious groups, as a "dangerous cult." In Russia, the government had refused to consider the church for registration as a religious organization, which became the subject of proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia. The court decided that Russia's refusal to consider the Church of Scientology's application for registration as a religious community "had been a violation of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights read in the light of Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion)."
L. Ron Hubbard and lawsuits
Critics state that the ultimate aim of Scientology lawsuits is to destroy church opponents by forcing them into bankruptcy or submission, using its resources to pursue frivolous lawsuits at considerable cost to defendants. In doing so, they draw particular attention to certain controversial statements made by the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1994, Scientology attorney Helena Kobrin was fined $17,775 for filing a frivolous lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema cited a frequently quoted statement of L. Ron Hubbard on the subject in the case of Religious Technology Center vs. The Washington Post, on November 28, 1995:
The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.— L. Ron Hubbard, The Scientologist, a Manual on the Dissemination of Material, 1955
Critics also allege that the Church uses litigation as a cover for intimidation tactics, such as investigating the criminal records (or lack thereof) of opponents and subjecting them to surveillance and invasive inquiries, both to discourage further criticism and to ensure the opponent's unwillingness to fight the lawsuit. A policy letter by L. Ron Hubbard, distributed in early 1966, says:
This is correct procedure:
- Spot who is attacking us.
- Start investigating them promptly for FELONIES or worse using own professionals, not outside agencies.
- Double curve our reply by saying we welcome an investigation of them.
- Start feeding lurid, blood sex crime actual evidence on the attackers to the press.
Don't ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way.
Critics of Scientology cite this passage, among others (such as the widely documented Fair Game doctrine), to support their contentions that the church uses smear tactics to augment the effectiveness of legal threats.
Scientology court cases
Notable Scientology court cases include the following:
Cases before the European Court of Human Rights
- On April 5, 2007, the Church of Scientology of Moscow won a judgment against the Russian government establishing its right to recognition as a religious organization. The European Court held that the government's refusal of registration "... had no lawful basis... the Moscow authorities did not act in good faith and neglected their duty of neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis the applicant's religious community.".
Cases in the United States
- Court case in 1976 concerning Operation Freakout, a church campaign targeting the author Paulette Cooper.
- Court case in 1979 and criminal convictions of 11 high-ranking officials regarding Operation Snow White, the largest then-known program of domestic espionage in U.S. history.
- In 1984, the church began a legal battle with Gerry Armstrong that spanned two decades. The church sued Armstrong for providing confidential documents about L. Ron Hubbard to Armstrong's attorney. The court found that Armstrong's actions were justifiable and affirmed this conclusion in Church of Scientology v. Gerald Armstrong. Armstrong settled his counter-claims with the church in December 1986 for $800,000 in exchange for his agreement to keep confidential his experience with the church. The church sued Armstrong for $10.5 million in 1995 and 2002 for allegedly violating the confidentiality agreement in 131 instances. A California appellate court awarded the church $321,923 in damages and $334,671.75 in attorneys fees in 1995, and $500,000 in damages in 2004. The court noted that "Armstrong makes no claim that he has complied, or will ever comply, with the injunction" and that Armstrong claims to now reside in Canada.
- From the time its tax exemption was removed by the IRS in 1967 to the reinstatement of the tax exemption in 1993, Scientologists filed approximately 2,500 lawsuits against the IRS. Over fifty lawsuits were still active against the IRS in 1993, although these were settled after the church negotiated a tax exemption with the government.
- The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was driven into bankruptcy in 1996 in part by a number of Scientology-related lawsuits. As the TV news program 60 Minutes reported in 1997, Scientologists filed over fifty lawsuits against the non-profit organization, which spent over $2 million on its legal defense. After one court handed down a judgment of $1 million against CAN, the organization filed for bankruptcy and auctioned off its assets, which were purchased for $20,000 by a lawyer affiliated with Scientology.
- In May 1991, Time magazine published a cover story on Scientology entitled "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power". The Church responded by suing Time for $400 million; a five-year legal battle ensued in which Time spent approximately $7 million defending itself in court. The case was eventually dismissed in the magazine's favor.
- Scientology has filed lawsuits against a number of Internet users, The Washington Post newspaper, over fifteen various Internet service providers in The Netherlands, and others concerned in the matter of Karin Spaink, a supporter of Arnaldo Lerma and other Internet activists who posted on her Web page excerpts from Scientology's copyrighted scriptures, which are withheld from the general public. This legal case included claims by Scientology that hyperlinks to alleged copyright infringements were also illegal. Spaink's case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands; however, the Court rejected Scientology's claims in their entirety, including the claims regarding hyperlinks.
- In 1998, Scientology (through subsidiary Bridge Publications) sued FACTNet for claimed copyright violations. When federal judge John Kane denied Scientology's request for summary judgment because FACTNet challenged Scientology's ownership of the copyrights of the documents, a settlement was reached in 1999. The terms were that if FACTNet is ever found guilty of violations of church copyrights, they are permanently enjoined to pay the church $1 million.
- When the Church was charged with a felony count of practicing medicine without a license in the 1996 case involving the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, Florida asked for damages of approximately $15,000 to be awarded against the organization. The Church hired law firms and medical specialists at an estimated cost of over $1 million, waging a defense that eventually resulted in the case being dismissed due to lack of credible evidence. On May 29, 2004, the Church paid an undisclosed amount to settle a wrongful death suit brought on behalf of McPherson's estate. An article on the suit describes legal attacks made by Scientology's attorneys:
[McPherson family attorney Ken] Dandar has persevered through a seemingly endless barrage of legal attacks. There have been nine attempts to disqualify him, and four attempts to remove Lisa's aunt, Dell Liebreich, as executor of Lisa's estate. Scientology attorneys have filed bar complaints against both him and Lirot, lawsuits against Lisa's family, and motions to remove judges and move the case to other venues. When asked how going up against Scientology compares to normal litigation, [First Amendment attorney Luke] Lirot replied, "It's like comparing LSD to orange juice." ... The wrongful death case went through four judges in seven years.
- In the case of Wollersheim vs. Church of Scientology (1980), former member Larry Wollersheim sued the organization for mental distress, and was awarded $30 million in damages. On appeal, the award was reduced to $2.5 million. In 1996, Wollersheim was awarded an additional $130,506.71 in attorney's fees incurred while defending against a church lawsuit that was dismissed for violating a California law prohibiting strategic lawsuits against public participation. The Church vowed not to pay the award, and the case dragged through the courts for 22 years, including two separate appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States and two additional appeals to the Supreme Court of California. In early 2002, the case was finally settled, with the Church of Scientology paying Larry Wollersheim $8,674,643.
- In Religious Technology Center v. Gerbode, 1994 WL 228607 (C.D. Cal. 1994) (against Frank A. Gerbode, inventor of Traumatic Incident Reduction), a Rule 11 sanction of $8,887.50 was imposed against Helena Kobrin, an attorney for the Church, for bringing baseless and frivolous claims.
- Religious Technology Center v. Netcom On-Line Communication Services, Inc. (N.D. Cal. 1995), is a U.S. district court case about whether the operator of a computer bulletin board service ("BBS") and Internet access provider that allows that BBS to reach the Internet should be liable for copyright infringement committed by a subscriber of the BBS.
- In DeCrescenzo v. Church of Scientology International, Laura DeCrescenzo sued the organization for forcing her to illegally work 14 hour days at age 12 and coercing her to get an abortion at age 17. Scientology settled with DeCrescenzo three weeks before the case went to trial.
Cases in the UK
- Bonnie Woods, a former member who began counseling people involved with Scientology and their families, became a target along with her husband Richard in 1993 when the Church of Scientology started a leaflet operation denouncing her as a "hate campaigner" with demonstrators outside their home and around East Grinstead. She and her family were followed by a private investigator, and a creditor of theirs was located and provided free legal assistance to sue them into bankruptcy. After a long battle of libel suits, in 1999 the church agreed in a settlement to issue an apology and pay £55,000 damages and £100,000 costs to the Woods.
Cases in Canada
- In R. v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, et al. (1992), the Church of Scientology was convicted on two charges of breaching the public trust, and seven members were convicted on various charges.
- In Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, Justice Casey Hill, at that time a Crown attorney involved in the R. v. Church of Scientology of Toronto case, sued and won CAD$1,600,000 for libel, the largest libel damage award in Canadian history. During the case, it was shown that a file had been kept on him as an "Enemy Canada." In their decision (1995), the Supreme Court of Canada found:
In this case, there was ample evidence upon which the jury could properly base their finding of aggravated damages. The existence of the file on Casey Hill under the designation "Enemy Canada" was evidence of the malicious intention of Scientology to "neutralize" him. The press conference was organized in such a manner as to ensure the widest possible dissemination of the libel. Scientology continued with the contempt proceedings although it knew its allegations were false. In its motion to remove Hill from the search warrant proceedings, it implied that he was not trustworthy and might act in those proceedings in a manner that would benefit him in his libel action. It pleaded justification or truth of its statement when it knew it to be false. It subjected Hill to a demeaning cross-examination and, in its address to the jury, depicted Hill as a manipulative actor.
Cases in France
- In 1978, L. Ron Hubbard, creator of Scientology, was convicted for illegal business practices, namely, making false claims about his ability to cure physical illnesses. He was sentenced to four years in prison, which was never served.
- In 2009, a case went to trial in France, after a woman claims to have been pressured into paying €21,000 ($29,400) to the Church of Scientology for lessons, books and medicines for her poor mental state accused the Church of Scientology of "organised fraud". Her lawyers argue that the church systematically seeks to make money through mental pressure and use scientifically dubious cures. Coincidentally, a large scale simplification of the laws in France occurred just prior to the beginning of the trial. Suspicion was raised as the new law revision forbids the dissolution of a legal entity, an unadvertised change among hundreds of others. Dissolution was the main sentence requested by the prosecutor against the Church of Scientology in this trial, becoming unlawful as the law changed. On October 27, 2009, a verdict was rendered: six members of the CoS in France, and the Church itself, were convicted of fraud. Four of these, including Alain Rosenberg, were given suspended prison sentences. The Scientology Celebrity Center in Paris, a Scientology bookstore, and all six individual convicts were ordered to pay fines. The plaintiff's request for dissolution of the Church was not fulfilled.
- Scientology and the Internet
- Scientology in Germany
- Fair Game (Scientology)
- Scientology Timeline
- The Hole (Scientology)
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