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CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OF CALIFORNIA v. SIEGELMAN

August 27, 1979

CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OF CALIFORNIA and FOUNDING CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OF WASHINGTON, D.C., Plaintiffs, against JAMES SIEGELMAN, FLO CONWAY, J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY and MORRIS DEUTSCH, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL

In this latest libel action brought by the plaintiffs, two branches of the litigious Church of Scientology, *fn1" motions have been made by the various defendants to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for judgment on the pleadings, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), and for summary judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The plaintiffs have cross-moved to dismiss the counterclaims raised against them.

The defendants Siegelman and Conway are the co-authors of the book Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, which was published by defendant J. B. Lippincott Company in 1978. In this book the authors attempt to explore what they describe as the "phenomenon . . . (of) sudden and drastic alterations of personality," investigating in the process the effects on personality of the techniques used by many of the current religious "cults" and mass-marketed self help therapies. Included among the many groups studied and commented upon was the Church of Scientology. *fn2" The plaintiffs now contend that included among the passages in the book relating to the Church of Scientology were a number of highly defamatory comments.

Following publication of Snapping, and as a result of the interest generated by it, and the topic generally, the defendant Siegelman, along with the defendant Deutsch, a former member of the Church of Scientology, appeared as guests on the syndicated television program "The David Susskind Show." The plaintiffs allege that during the course of the program both of these defendants, in response to certain questions posed, made defamatory comments about the Church. *fn3" The plaintiffs additionally assert that further defamatory remarks were made by Siegelman and Conway in an interview which was published in People magazine.

 The plaintiffs in the instant action, the Church of Scientology of California, which is registered in California as a non-profit, religious corporation, and the Founding Church of Scientology of Washington, D.C., which is registered in Washington, D.C. as a non-profit, religious corporation, are part of the worldwide Scientology religion of which the plaintiffs assert there are more than five million members, over three million of them in the United States. Numerous local churches of Scientology are located throughout the United States and in various foreign countries. *fn4" The plaintiffs assert that their individual churches have been seriously injured by the defendants' alleged defamatory statements, and that as a result their ability to function as a non-profit organization has been seriously impaired. The plaintiffs now seek damages against all of the defendants.

 The defendants have alleged a number of grounds upon which the complaint should be dismissed. They first assert, characterizing this action as one concerning statements of religious practice and beliefs, and citing to a long line of Supreme Court cases, that this suit is barred by the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. *fn5"

 It is well established that "testing in court the truth or falsity of religious beliefs is barred by the First Amendment." Founding Church of Scientology v. United States, 133 U.S.App.D.C. 229, 243, 409 F.2d 1146, 1156 (D.C.Cir.1969). See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 64 S. Ct. 882, 88 L. Ed. 1148 (1944). Courts must remain neutral in matters of religious doctrine and practice, Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1968), avoid involvement in the affairs of any religious organization or group, Wolman v. Walter, 433 U.S. 229, 97 S. Ct. 2593, 53 L. Ed. 2d 714 (1977), Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S. Ct. 504, 91 L. Ed. 711 (1947), and resist the making of any type of ecclesiastical determination, Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658 (1969), See Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 96 S. Ct. 2372, 49 L. Ed. 2d 151 (1975). As has been noted, the First Amendment rests "upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere." McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212, 68 S. Ct. 461, 465, 92 L. Ed. 649 (1948).

 The defendants assert that this doctrine of non-entanglement with religion bars the bringing of a libel action by a religious denomination, such as the Church of Scientology, *fn6" when the alleged libel relates to the validity of religious beliefs and practices. The Court agrees that where validity of religious beliefs are at issue involvement by the judiciary would be inappropriate. See Cimijotti v. Paulsen, 230 F. Supp. 39 (N.D.Iowa, 1964). It does not follow from this, however, that simply because a religious organization is a party to an action that that action should be immediately categorized as a theological dispute. Where the alleged defamation relates to secular matters, and where the issues can be resolved by neutral principals of law, no First Amendment bar exists. As was noted by the Supreme Court in a somewhat different context, "civil courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property." Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. at 449, 89 S. Ct. at 606.

 In the instant action the alleged defamatory remarks do not, on their face, relate to the validity of religious beliefs or practices. Rather, these statements deal with the alleged debilitating physical and psychological effect certain actions by the Church of Scientology have upon its members. While the Court will be vigilant to avoid any entanglement with theological questions should they arise, at this time no such questions are presented. Accordingly, the Court finds that the free exercise and establishment clauses to the First Amendment are no bar to this action.

 Having determined that this action is not precluded by the free exercise and establishment clauses, the Court must next turn to more traditional defamation concerns and determine whether the plaintiff churches constitute public figures within the doctrine of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964). *fn7"

 In New York Times it was held that a public official could not recover in defamation absent proof that the defendant made the statement knowing it to be false, or with reckless disregard as to whether it was false or not. This standard of proof has been extended so as to apply to public figures as well as public officials. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S. Ct. 1975, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1094 (1967). Thereafter, the Supreme Court, in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 3009, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 (1974), attempted to define the ways in which a person could become a public figure:

 
"For the most part those who attain this status have assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society. Some occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes. More commonly, those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved."

 Applying this standard to the facts of the instant action the Court finds the plaintiffs, the Church of Scientology of California, and the Founding Church of Scientology of Washington, D.C., to be public figures. The plaintiffs are component parts of a large world-wide religious movement which claims to have over five million adherents. Unlike the plaintiff in Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 96 S. Ct. 958, 47 L. Ed. 2d 154 (1976), *fn8" the instant plaintiffs have taken affirmative steps to attract public attention, and actively seek new members and financial contributions from the general public. *fn9" See James v. Gannett, 40 N.Y.2d 415, 386 N.Y.S.2d 871, 353 N.E.2d 834 (1976). As was found in regards to another religious institution (the Gospel Spreading Church) this Court believes the Church of Scientology to be "an established church with substantial congregations . . . (which) seeks to play "an influential role in ordering society.' " Gospel Spreading Church v. Johnson Publishing Co., 147 U.S.App.D.C. 207, 208, 454 F.2d 1050, 1051 (D.C.Cir.1971). The Church of Scientology has thrust itself onto the public scene, and accordingly should be held to the stringent New York Times burden of proof in attempting to make out its case for defamation. See Church of Scientology of California v. Cazares, 455 F. Supp. 420 (M.D.Fla.1978); Church of Scientology of California v. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 362 F. Supp. 767 (N.D.Cal.1973). *fn10" See also Friends of Animals, Inc. v. Associated Fur Manufacturers, Inc., 46 N.Y.2d 1065, 416 N.Y.S.2d 790, 390 N.E.2d 298 (1979).

 Holding the plaintiffs to the New York Times burden of proof, however, does not resolve the issue before the Court. The defendants Deutsch and Lippincott *fn11" (defendants Siegelman and Conway have not joined in this motion) assert that the plaintiffs cannot satisfy the requirement of proving actual malice, and that therefore summary judgment should be granted. They further state that such summary disposition is particularly appropriate, and in fact may be "the "rule' and not the exception," Guitar v. Westinghouse Electric Corp., 396 F. Supp. 1042, 1053 (S.D.N.Y.1975), in defamation actions, and is necessary so as to prevent the litigation from having any potentially chilling effect on the exercise of free speech. See Bon Air Hotel v. Time, Inc., 426 F.2d 858, 864 (5th Cir. 1970); Oliver v. Village Voice, Inc., 417 F. Supp. 235 (S.D.N.Y.1976).

 The Court is similarly concerned over the damaging effect a frivolous suit could have upon the exercise of First Amendment rights. The propriety of granting summary judgment where actual malice has been alleged, however, has been cast into great doubt by the Supreme Court's recent pronouncement in Hutchinson v. Proximire, 443 U.S. 111, 99 S. Ct. 2675, 61 L. Ed. 2d 411 (1979). In its decision the Court noted its doubt as to the validity of the "so-called "rule' that summary judgment is more appropriately granted in defamation actions than in other types of suits, and stated that "(t)he proof of "actual malice' calls a defendant's state ...


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