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Court Rejects Appeal by former Member of Scientology Church of California

April 23, 1990 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today rejected an appeal by a former member of the Church of Scientology of California who wanted the church declared a phony religion.

The court, without comment, rejected an appeal by Larry Wollersheim of Aspen, Colo.

Still pending before the justices is an appeal by the Church of Scientology of California aimed at overturning a $2.5 million ″emotional distress″ award won by Wollersheim.

A California appeals court ruled that the church must pay Wollersheim $500,000 in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

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A trial jury had awarded Wollersheim $30 million in damages but that amount was reduced by the appeals court.

Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.

Scientologists believe they can progress toward spiritual awareness through private sessions in which members’ skin responses to questions are monitored by an electronic device called an E-meter, which Hubbard invented.

The church calls such monitoring sessions ″auditing.″

Wollersheim, a Scientologist from 1969 to 1979, said church members harassed him and tried to drive his novelty business into bankruptcy. Scientology officials denied the charges, but a jury in Los Angeles ruled for Wollersheim.

Upholding the jury’s finding that church officials inflicted emotional distress on Wollersheim, the state appeals court last August said, ″There was substantial evidence to support a factual finding that the auditing, as well as other practices in this case, were conducted in a coercive environment.″

The state court therefore ruled that the church’s asserted religious freedom could not shield it from having to pay the damages award.

Lawyers for the church are arguing in its appeal that the Constitution ″prohibits courts from imposing emotional distress tort liability based upon peaceful religious practices by permitting juries to determine that such practices constitute coercive persuasion.″

The still-pending appeal also raises a due-process challenge to the $2 million punitive damages award, an issue the justices already have under study in another case.

In Wollersheim’s appeal rejected today, he accused Scientology of being ″a mockery of religion″ and a ″religious front.″ But the appeal did not appear to ask the court for any remedy except a formal declaration that Scientology is not really religion.

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In response, lawyers for the church told the justices Wollersheim’s appeal sought ″an advisory opinion (that) could have no possible effect on the outcome of this case in its present posture.″

The case is Wollersheim vs. Church of Scientology of California, 89-1367.