SAN JACINTO, Calif. - Hundreds of Scientology followers live on a gated, 500-acre campus and work long hours for almost no pay reproducing the works of founder L. Ron Hubbard and creating the church’s teaching and promotional materials.
The church said its 5,000 so-called Sea Organization members are religious devotees akin to monks who are exempt from wage requirements and overtime. But two lawsuits filed by former Sea Org members, as they are known, allege the workers are little more than slave laborers, forced to work 100-hour weeks for pennies and threatened with manual labor if they cause trouble.
Marc Headley and his wife, Claire, are seeking back pay and overtime that could add up to $1 million each, said their attorney, Barry Van Sickle.
Sea Org operates as a nerve center for the church’s most important business. While Sea Org members hold positions of authority within the international church, from the public relations team to the top leadership, lower-ranking members make up much of the work force.
The members are Scientology’s most devoted followers: They sign a billion-year pledge, vow not to have children and live and work communally.
Scientology has been sued by disgruntled members before, but experts believe these suits are the first to use labor law to challenge the premise that the Sea Organization is akin to a fraternal religious order.
Headley, who claims he escaped the gated facility in 2005, said he and others were threatened with forced labor and psychological abuse if they caused trouble.
The Church of Scientology vehemently denies the allegations and claims the plaintiffs are liars looking for money.
Claire Headley makes similar allegations but also claims she was coerced into an abortion, Van Sickle said.
Church officials say Sea Org members are not asked to have abortions but must leave the order if they become pregnant.
Practitioners believe they can eliminate negative energy from past lives through study and “auditing” sessions that use electronic devices called “e-meters” to detect mental trauma.
Headley, 36, said he began to question the religion while working for an average of 39 cents an hour to mass produce cassettes that cost the church $1 to make but sold for $75. He also helped make CDs and DVDs and expensive e-meters before graduating to working on in-house film production, he said. In 15 years, he said he earned $29,000.
Church leaders have labeled Headley a heretic, dispute his story and said he was an incompetent troublemaker.
Sea Org members happily receive room and board, medical and dental care, a $50 weekly personal allowance, three weeks of annual vacation and free auditing and religious instruction for their lifetime devotion, church officials said. Each day includes two hours of Scientology study and short meal breaks.
During an AP reporter’s visit, which was videotaped and photographed by the church, spokesman Tommy Davis repeatedly admonished the reporter for inquiring about Headley and other detractors, whom he called “terrorists” for associating with Anonymous, a group that has targeted Scientology with protests and has hacked into the church’s Web site.
Headley, who has written a book about his experiences, said he endured 24-hour surveillance, roll call three times a day and censored mail. Sleeping quarters were watched at night, floodlights illuminated the campuses and escape routes were blocked during security drills. The church denies that, saying Sea Org members are free to come and go as they please.
Headley said he decided to leave in 2005 after church officials accused him of reselling old film equipment. They said they were going to begin investigating his actions and place him in a rehabilitation camp.
Davis said Headley embezzled more than $13,000, but they never filed suit against him or sought criminal charges.
Headley said he was given permission to sell old equipment on the Internet and that he never stole anything.