Thursday, September 15, 2016
S.C. Allows Forced-Abortion Suit Against Scientology
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday left standing a Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s order denying summary judgment to the Church of Scientology in a suit by a former adherent who claims she was forced into an abortion and otherwise abused during her years of service to the church.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco yesterday, denied review of the summary denial, by this district’s Court of Appeal, of a writ of mandate sought by church attorneys. The church maintained, among other things, that the lawsuit by Laura DeCrescenzo should be thrown out as an attack on its First Amendment rights.
The high court denied review by a vote of 6-0, with Justice Carol Corrigan absent and not participating.
DeCrescenzo alleged in a complaint that she was employed by the church from 1991 to 2004, paid less than the minimum wage, and subjected to other illegal conditions.
She alleged that she married a co-worker at the age of 16 and became pregnant, and that Scientology forced her to have an abortion at the age of 17 because she was a member of the elite Sea Organization, whose members are not allowed to have children. She filed suit against Scientology in April 2009, alleging that she began working for that organization at the age of nine, and became effectively a full-time employee at the age of 10.
The Los Angeles Superior Court judge who heard the case originally ruled that all of DeCrescenzo’s claims were time-barred, because all were subject to statute of limitations no longer than four years, and the suit was filed more than four years after she left Scientology.
The Court of Appeal, however, in an unpublished opinion in 2011, held that the plaintiff was entitled to an opportunity to prove that Scientology was equitably estopped to plead the statute of limitations due to misrepresentations and the use of threats and intimidation to prevent her from filing a timely complaint.
The summary judgment ruling that the church sought to overturn was issued in April by Superior Court Judge John Doyle. The judge found that a triable issue exists as to whether the church forced DeCrescenzo to have an abortion, in violation of her privacy rights under the state Constitution, or merely sought to persuade her to do so, which would be constitutionally protected.
“…Plaintiff correctly notes that merely because Scientology is an undisputed religion does not make the Defendants immune for all purposes from all tort liability even for acts that are in some measure religiously motivated,” the judge wrote.
The church also raised a First Amendment religious freedom objection to the plaintiffs’ claims of labor law violations, based on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. (2012) 132 S.Ct. 694. The case holds that there is a “ministerial exception” that generally precludes the application of employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.
Doyle questioned whether the church can claim the benefit of the exemption by classifying all members as ministers, and as to whether it can do so as to the period in which DeCrescenzo was a minor. He cited a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case holding that the First Amendment does not exempt a church from the requirements of child labor laws.
The judge did rule for the church on the claim that it violated constitutionally protected liberty rights by confining the plaintiff to the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” a program for Sea Organization members who have violated expectations or policies.
The church claims DeCrescenzo went to the RPF voluntarily, while she claims she expressed a desire to leave the church but was placed under guard in order to prevent her from doing so. Doyle said there was no damages remedy for the alleged constitutional violation, but that the same facts arguably support the plaintiff’s tort claim for false imprisonment.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company