Masterson, a longtime member of the church, is awaiting a criminal trial on multiple rape charges that could send him to prison for 45 years to life. His accusers have also sued the church, alleging that its agents stalked and harassed them in retaliation for reporting Masterson to the LAPD.
Last December, however, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted the church’s motion to refer the lawsuit to religious arbitration, upholding an agreement the plaintiffs had signed when they joined the church decades earlier.
Their attorney, Marci Hamilton, appealed the ruling, and the case was heard on Tuesday before a three-judge panel of California’s Second District Court of Appeal. Hamilton argued that her clients have left the church and therefore cannot be coerced into participating in the church’s arbitration proceeding.
“This would be traumatizing for my clients,” Hamilton told the judges. “It would violate their First Amendment, absolute right to believe and practice whatever religion they choose and to escape the religion they do not want to be a part of.”
William Forman, an attorney for the church, countered that the arbitration agreement is an important condition of joining the church and receiving religious services, and ought to be upheld.
“It is a covenant with the church,” he argued. “That is how we accept people into the church.”
Forman said the proceeding itself would not be a religious ritual, and that the proceeding would be neutral. Hamilton, however, argued that the proceeding would be “one-sided,” and that it is inherently a part of the church’s religious practice.
“The position of respondents is that you can’t leave a faith,” she argued.
The three justices asked questions, with some appearing to show some deference toward the church’s position. Justice Lamar Baker suggested the case was not “ripe” because the proceeding had not happened yet, and suggested that the plaintiffs return to the court if the arbitration turned out to violate their free exercise rights.
“For all we know, this arbitration could go off to a T, like any other arbitration before any other arbitration provider,” Baker said. “Right now, this seems speculative.”
Masterson’s attorney, Andrew Brettler, attended the hearing but did not address the court. The justices are expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.