I remember reading L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction before the Church of Scientology was widely known. Not surprisingly, the religious movement began in New Jersey – a state where anything seems possible (except finding a job or having a stable government). Over the weekend, however, a New Jersey Star-Ledger story noted that some former members of the Church of Scientology are trying to sue their religion for violation of labor laws and unreasonable pay. Lawyers predict such a case cannot win in court, and I personally wonder how such cases of enforced labor differ from other brands of organized religion that require that extra push from their members. Doesn’t the church reserve the right to demand, voluntarily of course, that citizens forfeit their legal rights?
When I was young and naïve (instead of being old and naïve, as I am now), I took my first teaching job at Nashotah House. I was not yet thirty. It was, of course, a conflicted situation: a bunch of men living in the Wisconsin woods trying to maintain a monastic presence nestled between the sinful cities of Madison and Milwaukee. (And a few women, always the minority of the student body collective.) One of only two non-clergy on the faculty, I was surprised when, in response to what was an unreasonable administrative demand I was told, “When you signed your contract, you gave up your civil rights!” I’m not a lawyer, but I learned an important legal lesson – never mess with the saintly sorts that make up the church administration. Religion is big business. And religious bodies can afford big lawyers.
I feel sorry for the plaintiffs in this legal dispute, but they are in a wide and vast company. Organized religions are human constructs, and human constructs will always favor climbers. Climbers who reach the top will always build fortresses to protect their personal interests. In the church they’ll call it ecclesiastical authority and trace it right back to Jesus handing Peter some metaphorical keys. No, the church is not above the felonies and misdemeanors that secular courts just can’t judge. Potential members should read the contract, including the fine print. And don’t be taken in by the bits that sound like science fiction.