The Church of Scientology did not violate the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act despite a couple’s claims that it required them to work 100 hours a week for $50 each; forced them to perform manual labor including cleaning up dried human excrement; and forced the wife to undergo two abortions, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded on July 24 that Marc and Claire Headley, both former ministers at the church’s 500-acre headquarters in Gilman Hot Springs, Calif., could have left at any time and, in fact, traveled throughout the United States and Europe on a regular basis. The panel noted that both left the church in 2005 without incident.

“In our view, the text of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act resolves this case,” Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote. “The Act bars an employer from obtaining another’s labor ‘by means of’ force, physical restraint, serious harm, threats, or an improper scheme. That text is a problem for the Headleys because the record contains little evidence that the defendants obtained the Headleys’ labor ‘by means of’ serious harm, threats, or other improper methods.”

The panel acknowledged that the couple faced the prospect of being cut off from family and friends if they left, but continued: “A church is entitled to stop associating with someone who abandons it. A church may also warn that it will stop associating with members who do not act in accordance with church doctrine. The former is a legitimate consequence, the latter a legitimate warning. Neither supports a forced-labor claim.”

An attorney for the Church of Scientology, Eric Lieberman, a partner at New York’s Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, praised the unanimous ruling.

“It recognizes that the plaintiffs chose to join and remain Scientology ministers, that they lived in private houses and apartments and chose each day to return to the church facilities, and that the church doctrine is constitutionally protected,” he said. “It’s an important decision, and we’re very happy about it.”

An attorney for the Headleys — Kathryn Saldana of the Metzger Law Group, a toxic tort boutique in Long Beach, Calif. — did not return a call for comment.

According to the opinion, Marc Headley, who grew up in the Church of Scientology, joined its evangelical wing, called the Sea Organization, as a teenager in 1989; Claire, another lifetime church member, joined two years later. They married in 1992.

The opinion describes “Sea Org” as “an elite religious order of the Church” that “renders strict discipline, imposes stringent ethical and lifestyle constraints, and goes to great efforts to retain clergy and to preserve the integrity of the ministry.”

The Church of Scientology teaches that methods developed by its late founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, can help adherents overcome “moments of pain or lowered consciousness,” according to the opinion. Scientology’s goal, entrusted to members of Sea Org, is to use those teachings to “clear the planet” from “spiritual distress.”

“During their training, Sea Org members learn that the ministry will require them to work long hours without material compensation, to live communally, to adhere to strict ethical standards, and to be subject to firm discipline for ethical transgressions,” O’Scannlain wrote. Some of those standards include a prohibition against having children, and manual labor is frequently used as a means of discipline, he said.

At Sea Org, Marc Headley created and produced training films explaining Scientology, and Claire Headley oversaw internal operations at the church’s Religious Technology Center, which promotes its teachings.

According to the opinion, both worked more than 100 hours a week at the headquarters, referred to as Gold Base. The church paid their living expenses and $50 each in a weekly stipend.

As a policy, the church censored their mail, monitored their phone calls and made them get permission to access the Internet, O’Scannlain wrote. Discipline sometimes included manual labor, such as yard or kitchen work. Marc Headley claimed that in 2004 church leaders forced him to clean “dried human excrement” from an aeration pond by hand. Claire Headley claimed that in 2002 she lost 30 pounds after they forced her to live on protein bars and water. She also claimed that twice during the 1990s, after she discovered she was pregnant, they forced her to perform manual labor until she agreed to have abortions.

“Marc and Claire contend that they did not leave the Sea Org because they believed that doing so would have been difficult or even risky due to the Base’s extensive security, the Sea Org’s blow drills, and its approach to members who leave or wish to leave,” O’Scannlain wrote. By “blow drills,” he referred to a practice by which church officials attempt to persuade former members to return. The base was secured with a perimeter fence, cameras, motion detectors, alarms, observation posts and guards, he wrote. Security cameras covered their house, and both testified that they had been assigned escorts at times when traveling off the base.

Both alleged they were subjected to physical abuse, with Marc claiming that a senior executive struck him twice and that another punched him. In 2004, they alleged, church officials told Claire Headley that she would have to divorce her husband or leave her position at the center, which prohibits its staff members from marrying outsiders.

The couple filed separate lawsuits in 2009, the same year that Marc Headley released a book called Blown for Good, Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology. They argued that, as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the “serious harm” threatened to prevent someone from fleeing can include “psychological, financial, or reputational harm.”

“Specifically, they contended that the Church and Center violated the Act by causing them to believe that they could not leave the ministry or that they would face serious harm in doing so,” O’Scannlain wrote.

The church argued the Headleys lacked sufficient evidence and, in any event, that the claims were barred by the ministerial exemption under the First Amendment.

On 2010, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer in Los Angeles granted summary judgment in both cases to the church, agreeing that the ministerial exception barred the couple’s claims.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with Fischer’s analysis of the ministerial exception but said that point was unnecessary because, under the terms of the anti-trafficking law, both plaintiffs in fact were free to leave. “Throughout this period, Marc and Claire had innumerable opportunities to leave the Church,” O’Scannlain wrote. “They lived outside of the Base and traveled freely to and from the Base almost daily.”

Marc Headley acknowledged that hundreds of church members had left the Sea Org without “routing out” — the official procedure that allows members to leave the church and remain in good standing — and that, in 1990, when given the chance to leave under that method, he remained because he had “made a few friends in high places,” the panel said.

In most cases, members of Sea Org who returned did so because of persuasion and not physical force, the panel found. Marc Headley acknowledged that he wasn’t held against his will, O’Scannlain wrote, when he testified: “I think subliminally, I think that I wanted to leave but whether or not I was being held against my will, I don’t think I had those thoughts.”

Both plaintiffs enjoyed their jobs, the panel added, and in the end left the church without incident.

“Marc left in January 2005 after being told that he was under investigation for embezzlement and that he could be assigned to manual labor,” O’Scannlain wrote. “Claire left soon after that. Though both were followed and approached by co-religionists, neither was harmed, both continued on, and neither returned to the Church.”

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.