(Note: This article was originally published at Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker and is republished here with a new title)
Jeffrey Augustine is back, continuing on his investigation of Scientology’s governing documents and what they mean for members and ex-members. This time, Jeff tells us about the thing every ex-member of Scientology should do as soon as he or she has decided to leave…
In America, freedom of religion is typically considered in positive terms: Americans are free to embrace or reject religion as they please. Monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, animism, and every other religious form under the sun are allowed to be practiced in America without any interference from the government.
Churches, temples, mosques, and ashrams are free to determine their own internal form of government, rules, and discipline. The government is prohibited from intruding into these ecclesiastical matters. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution guarantees these rights. In the legal case Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese, Etc. v. Milivojevich, the Court stated:
“…the First and Fourteenth Amendments permit hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them.”
So long as the “rules and regulations for internal discipline and government” do not violate US law, the members of a religious group can be subjected to harsh ecclesiastical tribunals, severe punishments, and even the humiliating public disclosure of their sins and the US courts cannot do anything about it. This is the dark side of “freedom of religion.”
A really clear example of this is a court case that I think has a lot of relevance for Scientology. It was the 1984 dispute known as Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville, which was ultimately decided by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Marian Guinn joined the Church of Christ in 1974 in the small community of Collinsville, Oklahoma, where up to five percent of the local population belonged to the church. Several years into her membership in the church, Guinn, a single woman, began dating the town’s mayor. The mayor was a divorced man, and according to the Church of Christ, the only form of divorce condoned by the Bible was one caused by adultery, which was not the situation in the mayor’s case. So the church considered Guinn’s relationship with the mayor to be “unbiblical,” and the church elders demanded a meeting with her.
In that meeting, Guinn admitted that she was sleeping with the mayor, compounding the problem in the eyes of the elders. They told her to end the relationship, and she promised to repent. In a second meeting, the elders demanded that Guinn appear before the assembled church membership and publicly confess to the sin of fornication. Instead, she stopped attending the church.
So the elders then drove to her house for a third confrontation, and again demanded that she make a public pronouncement of her sin. They then sent her a letter warning that if she didn’t do what she was told, she would be withdrawn from the fellowship, and she realized that the elders intended to inform the congregation of her deeds. She sought legal advice, and her lawyer sent the elders a letter advising the not to discuss her private life with the congregation. Guinn also sent a letter making it clear that she had left the church and had rescinded her consent to be governed by its rules. This turned out to be crucial.
A few days later, the elders ignored her request to respect her privacy and read out a letter about her involvement with the mayor to the congregation. They also encouraged the church members to contact Guinn and ask her to repent. When Guinn met with one of the elders and again asked that her privacy be respected, he told her that her attempt to withdraw herself from the congregation was “doctrinally impossible” — as far as they were concerned, they still governed her and she could never leave on her own.
Guinn’s private life was not only discussed at her church, but the facts of her “sin” were also sent to four other local Church of Christ congregations to be read aloud to the members.
Marian Guinn then filed suit against the church for invasion of privacy and emotional distress. The Church of Christ argued in court that because its rules do not permit its members to ever resign or depart from the Church, the Church’s rules applied to Guinn even after she resigned. (A jury eventually awarded her $390,000.)
The Church of Christ, like the Church of Scientology, would like its members to think of it as the Hotel California: You can check out any time you want but you can never leave. However, this is simply not correct. The Guinn court offered an instructional and highly valuable ruling:
Just as freedom to worship is protected by the First Amendment, so also is the liberty to recede from one’s religious allegiance. In Torcaso v. Watkins the Court reaffirmed that neither a state nor the federal government can force or influence a person to go or to remain away from church against one’s will or to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. The First Amendment clearly safeguards the freedom to worship as well as the freedom not to worship.
As an aside, what this tells us is that the Scientologist who wishes to resign from the Church in order to escape its oppression and abuse is free to do so by sending the Church a written statement of resignation that includes a specific withdrawal of one’s consent to be governed by Scientology’s doctrinal rules. (And please note that I am not an attorney; this article may not be relied upon for legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney in your state for specific legal advice about your particular situation.)
The point here is that anyone desiring to resign from a church and withdraw their consent to be governed by the rules of that church must make a positive act. This means writing a letter to appropriate church officials specifically stating one’s resignation and withdrawal of consent. In the case of the Church of Scientology one needs to resign from the IAS, the Church of Scientology International, and all Orgs where one has signed membership services contracts and had services; the positive act should be as broad and sweeping as possible.
The court record in Guinn is specific on the point of withdrawing consent (emphasis mine):
The Elders had never been confronted with a member who chose to withdraw from the church. Because disciplinary proceedings against Parishioner had already commenced when she withdrew her membership, the Elders concluded their actions could not be hindered by her withdrawal and would be protected by the First Amendment. Parishioner relies on her September 24, 1981 handwritten letter to the Elders in which she unequivocally stated that she withdrew her membership and terminated her consent to being treated as a member of the Church of Christ communion. By common-law standards we find her communication was an effective withdrawal of her membership and of her consent to religious discipline.
Consent is the crux of the matter in terms of religion in America. Once an individual consents to be governed by a church’s rules, that individual is fully subject to the rules and the punishments, however harsh they may be, for breaking those rules.
Once an individual resigns from their church and withdraws their consent to be governed by church rules, however, the church no longer has any rights to punish them. As the Church Discipline blog wrote of the Guinn matter:
This bears repeating. Once a withdraw has occurred the First Amendment protections don’t belong to the church, rather they belong to the individual. All religious activity in the United States is consensual, a person who publicly claims not to be a member of a church is legally not a member of that church and church discipline cannot continue without consent. A church attempting to discipline a person that has withdrawn can be found to be engaging in a form of harassment.
Where the Church of Scientology radically differs from every other church in America is that it has a malicious intake system in which new members are systematically stripped of their civil rights when they sign a series of waivers.
In a previous article in the Bunker, I laid out the four basic contracts the Church of Scientology uses to legally assert its First and Fourteenth Amendment religious protections against its own members.
In business terminology, the Church of Scientology “front loads” its membership terms and conditions. What this means is that Scientology ensures that it is legally protected at the outset from any potential or conceivable future legal consequences from new members by using secular contract law against new members. These contracts legally position the Church deeply behind the religious protections of the US Constitution.
The brutally honest answer as to why the Church of Scientology has gotten away with what it does to its members is simple: Scientologists consented to it. Even if that consent was coerced, not understood, given under compulsion or the threat of an SP Declare and disconnection, that consent allowed the Church to become the beast it is today. When Scientologists no longer consent to the Church’s brutality and abuse they leave by their positive acts of resignation or escape.
The Church of Scientology is like a rigged casino: Thanks to its Constitutional protections, the odds are absolutely and irrevocably stacked in favor of the house. Like all rigged casinos, people will have some wins in Scientology; but over time the house takes everything. That is how the game is designed. The only way out is to resign from the Church and to withdraw one’s consent to be governed by the Church of Scientology’s rules.
Beyond withdrawing your personal consent, the larger solution is to demand that the IRS and Congress act to revoke Scientology’s 501(c)3 tax exemption. Once Scientology loses its tax exemption — and this will happen — Scientology will be a business subject to civil and criminal penalties. As it now stands, Scientology is an evil Cult that gets away with murder. This must stop.
— Jeffrey Augustine