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Church of Scientology Wins in 9th Cir, But Did it Really Win?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

It seems that the Church of Scientology experiences renewed interest — both good and bad — every time Tom Cruise’s personal life endures a major shift.

(Maybe that’s why The Village Voice named Cruise as number 4 among the top 25 people crippling Scientology.)

But a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the Church of Scientology on Tuesday could generate far more buzz than Cruise’s personal life.

Marc and Claire Hadley -- they're sharing the number 16 spot on the Voice's Scientology-crippling list -- sued the Church of Scientology, alleging that the Church committed forced labor violations within its Sea Organization (Sea Org) component.

Sea Org members do the bulk of the spiritual work for the Church. Each Sea Org member makes a symbolic one-billion-year commitment to serve the Church. A member may make that commitment only after undergoing extensive training and study, passing a fitness exam, and obtaining a Church-issued certification attesting that the applicant is qualified for Sea Org life.

Sea Org members are required to work long hours without material compensation, to live communally, to adhere to strict ethical standards, and to be subject to firm discipline for ethical transgressions. The Church, in turn, agrees to provide Sea Org members with all living necessities and a weekly allowance for incidental items.

Marc and Claire Headley were raised in the Scientology religion and joined Sea Org in 1989 and 1991, respectively. They married in 1992. They remained in Sea Org until 2005, and agree that they were "ministers" during their Sea Org years. Despite the oppressive conditions under which they worked -- conditions that are recounted from the Headleys' perspective in the opinion -- the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Headleys voluntarily worked for the Sea Org "because they believed that it was the right thing to do" and "enjoyed it," reports the Los Angeles Times.

The court said that the law the Headleys sued under, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, was created to prohibit the forced labor among immigrants, not to protect church volunteers. Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, writing for the Ninth Circuit panel, suggested that "claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or any of a number of other theories ... might have better fit the evidence."

So the Church of Scientology won a forced labor lawsuit in federal court, but did it really win? Will a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion detailing some of the more extreme practices within Sea Org damage the church's reputation?

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