Golden Gate University Law Review


In Headley v. Church of Scientology International, the Ninth Circuit faced a particularly sensitive question involving the limits of the TVPA and the application of the ministerial exception. In Headley, former ministers brought TVPA forced-labor claims against the Church of Scientology (the “Church”). The Church argued before the district court that the plaintiffs’ labor was not forced, and that the ministerial exception applied to effectively bar the plaintiffs’ claims. The district court agreed, holding that the instances of physical abuse alleged did not raise a triable issue of fact as to the Headleys’ forced-labor claims. The court also waded into constitutional waters, finding that the ministerial exception formed a second bar to the plaintiffs’ forced-labor claims.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court’s position that courts may not scrutinize certain aspects of the minister-church relationship. Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit avoided the question of whether the First Amendment’s ministerial exception—usually invoked only in employment-law contexts—also applies to forced-labor claims under the TVPA. Instead, the court simply looked to the text of the TVPA to find that the plaintiffs’ labor was not, within the meaning of the statute, forced "by means of’ serious harm, threats, or any other improper methods.” In affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit found that the Headleys had voluntarily joined and worked for the Church because they believed in the Church’s doctrine and in the personal commitments they made to the Church. Pointing to the Headleys’ ability to leave the Church, and their failure to do so for well over a decade, the court found that the plaintiffs simply were not forced to remain in their respective conditions.