Before Gawain and Laura Baxter could leave their posts as workers aboard the Church of Scientology’s religious ship in the Caribbean in 2012, the couple said they had no choice but to sign contracts they didn’t understand.
It was required before a security guard would hand over their passports, immigration records and identification, according to court records.
What they didn’t know, according to their declarations, is that they signed clauses agreeing to bring any future dispute before the church’s internal arbitration panel of loyal Scientologists, not the U.S. court system.
The Baxters and fellow Scientology worker Valeska Paris sued the church in April for trafficking, and now a Tampa federal judge is considering whether to grant the church’s request to punt the lawsuit into internal arbitration.
At a hearing on the motion Thursday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Barber asked both sides to explain whether the former Scientologists signed the contracts under duress. All three were members of the church’s military-style workforce called the Sea Org.
The Baxters and Paris signed their contracts out of “religious obedience,” not duress, argued William H. Forman, an attorney for Church of Scientology International, one of five church entities named as defendants.
He said that falls under a legal doctrine known as the ministerial exception that helps protect churches from claims by religious workers. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled secular courts cannot interfere with it, he said.
Forman said no church official made objective threats to the Baxters or Paris about leaving the church. Signing the documents was required only if they wanted to leave while remaining in good standing with Scientology. He said the former Scientologists had “subjective beliefs” related to their religion about what would happen if they failed to sign the contracts, such as being excommunicated from their families.
“The duress issues here are not black and white,” Forman said. “They are hopelessly intermingled with the religious issues.”
What created duress was fear of punishment conditioned into the Baxters and Paris since childhood, said Shelby Leighton, an attorney with Public Justice, a nonprofit that is part of the team representing the former Scientologists. In the Baxters’ case, because children were not allowed in the Sea Org, Laura Baxter got pregnant with her husband on purpose as a way to begin the process of leaving.
While being subjected to “long interrogations and psychological punishment” during the “routing out” process, the Baxters were held in isolation and surveilled 24 hours a day by security, according to their declarations. During her time in the Sea Org, Laura Baxter said she was also confined to the ship’s engine room, forced to do manual labor and had pay withheld.
Leighton said that physical force is not required to prove duress and that confinement and threat of force is sufficient. “That’s not a subjective fear,” Leighton said. “They’re basically being trapped on the ship until they sign the documents.”
While discussing the issue of duress, Barber asked about a hypothetical scenario in which someone had a gun to a person’s head while they signed an arbitration contract on video and whether that would have to go to arbitration. Forman responded, “Yes, because the agreement says you must arbitrate.”
Paris also served on the ship, called the Freewinds, but was in Australia when she left the Sea Org in 2009. Leighton said Paris experienced the same duress because she had to sign departure contracts with the arbitration clause in order to get her passport back from Scientology.
Barber, the judge, noted that Paris was in a foreign country and needed her passport to be in Australia.
“That is not being told you can’t walk out this door,” Forman said. “It’s a matter of religious obedience.”
Last year, a U.S. appeals court upheld a Tampa federal judge’s ruling that sent a fraud lawsuit brought by former Scientologists Luis and Rocio Garcia into the church’s internal arbitration. The Garcias’ attorney argued the arbitration agreements the couple signed while in the church were “substantively unconscionable” because they were seen as enemies of the church after suing Scientology and could not get a fair hearing.
The appeals court ruled that delving into the fairness of Scientology’s arbitration process would be interpreting religious doctrine in violation of the First Amendment.
In the trafficking case, attorneys for Scientology argued that the Baxters and Paris signed the same arbitration agreements that the U.S. appeals court upheld in the Garcia case.
But in their response, attorneys for Baxter and Paris argued the Garcias never raised the issue of duress. They were lay parishioners who signed contracts while receiving services and were not full-time religious workers.
Barber did not indicate when or how he would rule on Scientology’s motion to compel arbitration.
(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the name of Public Justice, an organization working on behalf of the plaintiffs.)