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Federal judge to rule on validity of Scientology's refund process

By
MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (2011)
Plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia spent $1.3 million on church services and causes.

TAMPA — A federal judge on Thursday urged both sides in a lawsuit over the Church of Scientology's fundraising tactics to settle matters on their own before he is forced to make "a difficult decision" after two days of hearings.

If they don't come to an agreement — and there was no indication they would — U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore said he will focus on whether the church has a valid procedure in place to arbitrate money disputes with former parishioners.

The plaintiffs, Luis and Rocio Garcia, spent $1.3 million on services and causes over 28 years, and are seeking a refund.

The church contends the couple must go through a "Committee of Evidence" to be considered for a refund. But the couple argues there are no such procedures in place.

According to testimony this week, church policy governing Committees of Evidence never mentions arbitration, and there has never been an arbitration in the history of the church. Whittemore said there is no basis for what one would look like.

Much of Thursday's testimony related to whether someone who leaves or is expelled from the church would be treated fairly by a panel made up of Scientologists in good standing, as required for a Committee of Evidence.

Former Scientologists Hayden James and Christie Collbran told stories about how the church's "disconnection" policies forced family members still in the church to disown relatives who left.

But Whittemore said the First Amendment prevents him from putting any weight on such testimony, no matter how persuasive.

"I have no authority to delve into the beliefs, doctrines, tenets of this organization that calls itself a church," he said.

He also expressed frustration with former church members using their time on the witness stand to air grievances instead of focusing on the arbitration issue.

"This is not a forum to fight with the church," Whittemore said. "I am not going to be dragged into these disputes."

Church attorney F. Wallace Pope Jr. said a Committee of Evidence can conduct an arbitration because it is in charge of all matters of justice. But Whittemore asked for more information to explain the connection between a Committee of Evidence and the arbitration clause in the enrollment agreement parishioners must sign whenever they take a church course or use a service. The Garcias say they signed many such agreements.

Their attorney, Theodore Babbitt, countered that the arbitration clause and the Committee of Evidence policies are inconsistent and polar opposites, and the church would be making up the process as it went.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst