A California appeals court said victims who accused Danny Masterson of rape do not have to go through an arbitration process with the Church of Scientology, allowing their harassment suit against the actor and Church leaders to move forward.
In their opinion released Thursday, the judges wrote that the victims, who are suing for harassment, invasion of privacy and emotional distress, have the First Amendment right to leave a religious organization and are not bound by arbitration rules. of the Church since the allegations in the lawsuit occurred after they left the Church.
Chrissie Carnell Bixler, her husband Cedrick Bixler-Zavala, Marie Bobette Riales and two other anonymous victims claimed they were “systematically harassed” after reporting to police that the ‘That ’70s Show’ actor raped the women.
The alleged victims filed a petition with the California Court of Appeals after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Steven J. Kleifield ruled in December 2020 that they had signed peace agreements. arbitration with the Church of Scientology.
Under those agreements, Kleifield ruled that Bixler and the other plaintiffs could not sue the organization and must go through an internal arbitration process, which would take place before a Church panel.
In their opinion, the Court of Appeal wrote that the petitioners have the right to leave the Church.
“Individuals have the First Amendment right to leave a religion. We find that once the claimants terminated their membership in the Church, they were not bound by its dispute resolution procedures to resolve the claims at issue here, which are based on alleged tortious conduct that occurred. after their separation from the Church and therefore do not involve the resolution of ecclesiastical problems. We issue a writ directing the trial court to rescind its binding arbitration order and dismiss the petition.
The plaintiffs also sued Scientology leader David Miscavige and claimed that the Church tapped and hacked into their phones, sent threatening messages and even killed Bixler’s dog.
Thursday’s ruling would allow the civil case to move forward, while Masterson awaits his next scheduled hearing in February on rape charges.
Marci Hamilton, one of the lawyers representing the women, told the Post that the appeals court’s opinion is a “historic decision” not only for victims of the Church of Scientology, but also for others. who have been silenced by religious organizations.
“It’s the fundamental principle of the First Amendment that you can choose whatever faith you want, but part of that foundation has to be that you can also give up whatever faith you choose,” Hamilton said. “All of these women who had been members had denied their faith, so bringing them back is unconstitutional.
“None of the other victims of Scientology have come this far. While we are thrilled for our customers, it also sends a message to every believer who feels trapped in a religious organization where they have been hurt that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Hamilton said the next step would be to return to the lower court and overturn the previous ruling that forced his clients into arbitration with the Church. After that, the civil case against Masterson, Miscavige and the Church could move forward, she said.
Bixler, a former model who dated Masterson for years, testified at Masterson’s preliminary hearing last year and said the actor raped her in November and December 2001.
Bixler said that during one of the incidents, she woke up to see Masterson having sex with her. When she tried to push Masterson off of her, Bixler said he pushed her down and put “all of his weight” on her.
Masterson’s other accusers also testified in the preliminary hearing that the Church tried to dissuade them from reporting the actor to the police.
Masterson’s attorney, Andrew Brettler, had no comment.
Williams H. Forman, a church attorney said, “The Church of Scientology disagrees with this unprecedented decision. Every church, temple and mosque should be troubled by this decision as it singles out religious organizations for disparate treatment under contract law. The Church again denies allegations of harassment in the bixler complaint as obvious, cynical and selfish fictions, and the Church knows that it will be justified.
The Church has previously denied the allegations while Masterson has pleaded not guilty to the rape charges.