First Amendment - Ministerial Exception - Ninth Circuit Avoids Constitutional Question, Holding That Ministers Did Not State a Claim That Church of Scientology Violated Trafficking Victims Protection Act

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Last Term, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, (1) the Supreme Court approved the so-called "ministerial exception." (2) This doctrine, rooted in the First Amendment's Religion Clauses, bars the application of certain laws to the employment relationship between a church and its ministers on the ground that those laws abridge a church's freedom "to choose ... who will guide it on its way." (3) The Court carefully limited its holding, however, stating that it was exempting the ministerial relationship only from employment discrimination suits, (4) despite the fact that many lower federal courts apply the doctrine more broadly and have not established a mechanism to limit the types of laws to which it applies. (5) Recently, in Headley v. Church of Scientology International, (6) the Ninth Circuit confronted the question of whether the doctrine should exempt the defendant Church's relationship with its ministers from the constraints of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (7) (TVPA). (8) Although the district court held that Ninth Circuit precedent required an exemption, the Ninth Circuit concluded that it need not reach the issue, granting the Church summary judgment on the merits. (9) The court was right not to affirm the district court's untenably broad construction of the exception. But despite its refusal to discuss the constitutional issue, the court failed to avoid the constitutional question and to analyze fully the plaintiffs' claims. The court should have instead clarified the boundaries of the exception.

For over a decade, Claire and Marc Headley belonged to Sea Organization, or Sea Org, the Church of Scientology's evangelical wing. The two had joined as teenagers and married soon thereafter. (10) Like other members, they made a one-billion-year commitment to serve the Church and "learn[ed] that the ministry [would] require them to work long hours without material compensation, ... to adhere to strict ethical standards, and to be subject to firm discipline." (11) Most of the time, they lived at "Gold Base," a compound surrounded by a perimeter fence patrolled by guards, where they worked over one hundred hours a week and were paid only a fifty-dollar weekly stipend. (12) The Church typically would not let them leave without permission or an escort. (13) At other times, the Headleys lived outside Gold Base and commuted to work; they were then able to travel and run errands. But the Church posted security personnel at their home to monitor them and installed cameras over their house. (14) While working for the Church, the Headleys were assigned disciplinary manual labor. Church officials hit Marc on three different occasions, and both he and Claire testified to witnessing multiple episodes of verbal and physical abuse by Church officials. (15) The couple was not allowed to have children. (16)

Members may leave Sea Org by a specified process. (17) Members who leave without following the process may be pursued by dozens of members to convince them to return, and members who do return are subject to discipline. (18) Those members who do not are declared "suppressive persons" and cut off from friends and family members who still belong to the Church. (19) The Headleys, who left Sea Org without following procedure and failed to return, were declared "suppressive persons." (20)

Following their departure, the Headleys filed separate suits in California state court against the Church, which removed to federal court. (21) At summary judgment, the Headleys alleged only that the Church had violated the TVPA, (22) which imposes civil and criminal penalties for "knowingly provid[ing] or obtain[ing] the labor or services" of another by "means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint"; "means ... or threats of serious harm"; or "means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that ... that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint. …