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FED COURT DENIES SCIENTOLOGY REQUEST: Decision on Religious Arbitration Coming Soon?

Ted_BabbittFederal Judge James Whittemore today denied the Church of Scientology’s request to bolster its response to Luis and Rocio Garcia’s fraud lawsuit.

On Monday night, the Garcias filed numerous damning declarations by former church members and officials who say that the church has created a situation that makes it impossible for excommunicated members to obtain refunds. (Scientology courses are extremely expensive and it’s not unusual for members to put tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on account for future services which may never be undertaken.)

The church — which had already used up its 25-page limit to respond to the lawsuit — asked for an exception to local rules to file an additional 10-page memo and a set of its own declarations that it said would prove its arbitration policies are fair.

Today, Judge Whittemore denied Scientology’s request to file more pages, which may indicate that he’s close to a decision about Scientology’s motion that the case be moved to internal church arbitration and dismissed from the federal court.

“That was a world land speed record for a decision,” says Ted Babbitt, attorney for the Garcias. “But that could be good or it could be bad,” he said with a laugh in a telephone call today.

Last night, Babbitt filed an objection to Scientology’s request to add a memo and declarations. Once again, he argued that this case is about fraud, not about religion.

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But he cautioned about reading too much into Whittemore denying Scientology the ability to file more evidence at this point.

“A lot of federal judges don’t want more than the minimum amount of briefing,” he says. “I don’t think it means anything other than he’s just following the rules.”

We asked him about the church’s strategy so far.

“They’re trying to make this a First Amendment issue and I don’t understand how it could be. If you’re the Catholic Church or a Buddhist church, you can’t defraud people. If the Catholic Church took your money for a specific purpose and that purpose never really existed, the purpose was made up, then that’s fraud,” he says.

The church responded in its briefing, however, that the Garcias’ complaints about their donations should be resolved by an arbitration panel made up of Scientologists in good standing, and that it was a violation of Scientology’s First Amendment rights to hear the case in a civil court.

The Garcias answered back Monday night with declarations by ex-church members and officials who described a real Catch-22 in the way excommunicated members — called “declared” members in Scientology jargon — are told they don’t have the right to even ask for refunds.

“It’s beyond a Catch-22. The animosity the church encourages against people who are declared is astounding,” Babbitt says.

So what’s next from Whittemore?

“I would expect a ruling pretty quickly. He obviously understands the case. He has the case somewhere near him. And he has a reputation for being very timely,” Babbitt says.

Babbitt expects a ruling from Whittemore in the next two weeks on Scientology’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the case from federal court.

If Whittemore denies Scientology’s motion, Babbitt expects the church would then file a direct response to the complaint, which would be a motion to dismiss — probably on First Amendment grounds.

And if Whittemore denies that motion as well?

“Then we’re off to the races — discovery,” Babbitt says.

“I think we’re going to have a response fairly quickly. I have confidence that we’re going to win, but you never know.”

Our attorney, Scott Pilutik, also thinks a decision will come quickly…

“I would take this as a good sign that the judge doesn’t see this as a close question. Like I said, replies are commonly granted. But he feels he knows enough already, I guess. It’s speculative to conclude, though, that the court’s certainty as to where it sits on this question is good or bad for either side. It basically just means that the court feels that it can decide the arbitration question without further argument — it knows how it’s going to rule,” he says.

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on April 25, 2013 at 14:30

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