PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Two former Scientology ministers want the 9th Circuit to let them sue the church for forced labor, rejecting application of the First Amendment's ministerial exception.
Husband and wife Claire and Marc Headley each filed complaints against the Church of Scientology under the Trafficking Victims Act after leaving the Sea Organization, an order of Scientology in which members work long hours and perform hard labor without pay.
The Headleys worked at the church from the early 1990s until 2005. Claire Headley claimed that the church prohibited her from having children and was coerced into having two abortions. She also alleged that members who tried to leave the church were followed, brought back, and deprived of food and sleep, among other punishments.
In his complaint, Marc Headley said ministers at the church physically abused him. He also claimed that he was told that he would be excommunicated from his family if he left the church without first going through a "routing out" process that requires members to continue their duties for free and perform hard labor.
Marc Headley has published a book about his experiences at the church, "Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology."
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer threw out the Headleys' complaints because he found their claims failed under the First Amendment's ministerial exception.
On Thursday, a three-judge appeals panel heard arguments to revive the case
"The simple fact is that where a religious organization does not have a religious justification for the conduct at issue it cannot avail itself of the protection of the First Amendment," the Headleys' counsel, Kathryn Saldana of Kendall Brill Klieger, told the panel.
Asked whether the court could consider the claims without first reading the doctrine of the church to determine psychological compulsion, Saldana said the Scientology church had been "subversive of good order" and had violated fundamental constitutional rights.
The church's attorney, Eric Lieberman, countered that the Headleys' claims related only to their "participation in the religion."
A forced labor claim is barred, "based upon psychological factors which relate to the beliefs: the religious upbringing, the religious training, the religious practices, the religious lifestyle restraints, religious order, and the rules and customs and discipline of a church," Lieberman said.
In her five-minute rebuttal Saldana continued tying the case to constitutional rights, rather than religious doctrine.
"This country was created on the basis of freedom," Saldana said.
"The 13th Amendment was enacted to ban involuntary servitude and slavery, and Congress in enacting the forced labor statute recognized that the definition they've given for forced labor is a crime of involuntary servitude," she added.
Judges Dorothy Nelson, Diarmuid O'Scannlain and Norman Smith presided over the hearing.
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