TAMPA, Fla.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Babbitt & Johnson, P.A., and Weil Quaranta, P.A., are challenging The Church of Scientology’s status as a “religion” in a new motion filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa. The law firms are representing two former California Scientologists who contend that the group knowingly defrauded them.
“Plaintiffs can produce evidence that Scientology possesses an elaborate corporate structure which is primarily a money making racket aimed less at promoting spiritual values than at squeezing individual Scientologists for as much money as they can pay,” the motion states.
The motion, filed late last week in the United States District Court in the Middle District of Florida, may be the first of its kind explicitly contesting Scientology’s validity as a religion. It seeks a new trial in response to a March 13 decision by U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore staying the suit filed in January 2013 by Luis A. Garcia Saz and his wife, Maria Del Rocio Burgos Garcia, of Irvine, Calif. (Orange County) by compelling them to submit to a binding arbitration panel of Scientologists.
Luis A. Garcia Saz v. Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization Inc., Case No: 8:13-cv-220-T-27TBM, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division
Attorneys for the Garcias, Theodore Babbitt of Babbitt & Johnson, P.A., of West Palm Beach, and Ronald P. Weil of Weil Quaranta, P.A. of Miami and Los Angeles, contended in the motion that such an arbitration panel is “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable.” They argue that the judge’s ruling is based on flawed premises that Scientology is a religion and that an arbitration panel of Scientologists is valid. The judge did acknowledge that the Church of Scientology has never conducted an arbitration.
In his March 13 order, Judge Whittemore wrote: “Plaintiffs’ claims are subject to binding Scientology arbitration pursuant to various Enrollment Applications Plaintiffs signed which contain enforceable arbitration clauses.” The Garcias’ new motion argues that the plaintiffs never agreed Scientology was a religion.
This rare showdown in federal court comes as the Church of Scientology endures withering fire in the media, with the new HBO documentary “Going Clear,” based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the same name, heightened focus on celebrity Scientologists such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and ample and mounting reports of harassment and financial, psychological and physical abuse toward both current and former members.
In an effort to buttress evidence of intimidation, the book and movie say that the organization only won its tax-exempt charitable status from the IRS in 1993 after relentless pressure through 2,400 lawsuits against the IRS and individual IRS employees. That exemption, plaintiff’s lawyers contend, has given the organization cover to present itself as a religion. Before 1993, the IRS, like many countries, denied tax-exempt status because the Church of Scientology made 90 percent of its money from fees rather than donations.
The Garcias said they had contributed more than $420,000 to Scientology building projects delayed or never completed, and counseling services, accommodations and humanitarian initiatives never provided. The Scientology “Flag” building in Clearwater, to which the Garcias contributed $340,000, broke ground in 1998 and was not dedicated until November 2013, raising as much as $200 million, or double the cited construction cost.
Yet Whittemore wrote that Luis Garcia had signed approximately 40 enrollment applications as a “committed Scientologist” with enforceable arbitration clauses under Florida law. The judge also contended that the plaintiffs never disputed that the Church of Scientology is a religious institution.
The plaintiffs argue that they never made such a concession, and that any arbitration contracts are “unconscionable” because ex-Scientologists such as the Garcias are considered “suppressive persons” and thus officially shunned under threat of punishment from contact with Scientologists in good standing, including family members. The plaintiffs contend it is therefore inconceivable for Scientologists in good standing to arbitrate fairly – if at all.
As for Scientology’s status as a religion, the new motion says:
“The Court…. concludes that the Defendants qualify as a religion even though no evidence of that has ever been presented to this Court and Plaintiffs have, most certainly, not conceded that point…. Plaintiffs, if given an opportunity, could show that the Church of Scientology is a business under the cover of religion… Plaintiffs contend that Scientology is a self-proclaimed religion without underlying theories of man’s nature or his place in the universe [that characterize] recognized religions. We can show that the Church of Scientology operates in a commercial manner and has an explicit financial motive and structure from its very outset. In fact, one of the Church’s goals, articulated in the Church’s governing policy of finance is to 'MAKE MONEY … MAKE MONEY … MAKE MORE MONEY … MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE AS TO MAKE MONEY… DEMAND MONEY BE MADE.'"
The motion continues:
“There is ample evidence that despite its claimed ‘religious’ teachings and use of quasi-religious vocabulary, Scientology does not really have anything that could be called a theology. Critics suspect that clerical terms like spiritual, God, and Church mainly serve the purpose of tax evasion.”