University of Southern California

Closing a Loophole: Headley V. Church of Scientology International as an Argument for Placing Limits on the Ministerial Exception from Clergy Disputes

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Note by Molly A. Gerratt
From Volume 85, Number 1 (November, 2011)

In 2009, Marc and Claire Headley sued the Church of Scientology International and its affiliate, Religious Technology Center, for violating the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (“TVPA”) and for forcing Claire to undergo two abortions. The case was thrown out at the summary judgment phase because the Headleys were considered “ministers” of the Church of Scientology. Under the judicially created “ministerial exception”—an exemption never explicitly endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court—ministers are barred from suing their religious employer for disputes arising during the course of their employment. Because of the ministerial exception, the Headleys’ accusations have gone uninvestigated, potentially allowing the Church to continue to inflict horrific treatment on other “ministers” in its ranks. This Note begins by analyzing the current state of the exemption and its limits. Utilizing Headley as a case study, this Note concludes that the current limits on the ministerial exception are inadequate and proposes that courts consider the “harm principle” as a limiting doctrine on the exemption. This limiting principle would force the courts to consider physical and societal injuries caused by religious institutional behavior in the ministerial employment relationship in their constitutional inquiries. During the production of this Note, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument and decided a case concerning the ministerial exception. A brief epilogue addresses the decision and its implications on the limitation set forth in this Note.

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