Scientology’s Gag Reflex: The Church’s History of Enforcing a Vow of Silence


Tomorrow, one of the most remarkable legal hearings in the litigious history of Scientology should unfold in a Texas courtroom.

Two weeks after filing suit against Debbie Cook, the former executive who for 17 years ran its spiritual mecca in Florida, Scientology will be seeking to turn a 14-day restraining order into a temporary injunction that will keep a gag order in place as it sues Cook for a minimum of $300,000 in damages.

Scientology is suing Cook for sending out a New Year’s Eve e-mail to thousands of her fellow church members in which she complained that the church, with its focus on “extreme fundraising,” has wandered from the principles of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The church claims in its lawsuit that Cook’s e-mail was a violation of a non-disclosure agreement she signed in 2007, when she left her position on church staff and accepted a payment of $50,000. Cook, we believe, will attempt to introduce evidence that she signed the agreement under duress after her career in Scientology’s “Sea Org” had become unbearable (we have previously written about homophobic hazing Cook was made to endure, and we hear that she is prepared to present evidence of far worse treatment).

In other words, things could get pretty ugly in Bexar County’s civil court chambers tomorrow.

While we wait for the fireworks to begin, we thought back to the past, when Scientology had previously sued because someone dared to speak out about the church’s unsavory secrets.

So we gave Gerry Armstrong a call.

“I’m not in touch with Debbie Cook, and I’ve never met her. But obviously, this is very related to the Gerry Armstrong case,” he said last week when we found time to talk. (He often refers to the “Gerry Armstrong case” or the “Gerry Armstrong injunction” in conversation. It’s one of his many quirks.)

Armstrong’s history with Scientology is stunning in its breadth, daunting in its complexity, and maddening in its details. Even attempting to summarize it seems an impossible task, but I’ll have to try…

A native of British Columbia, Armstrong joined Scientology in 1969, and a few years later found himself sailing on the yacht Apollo with L. Ron Hubbard as the church founder ran his international enterprise from the ship. By the time Hubbard moved operations back to shore in 1975, Armstrong had become very close to him and was then trusted with compiling a collection of Hubbard’s personal records so that it could be turned over to a professional writer for an authorized biography. Armstrong, however, became deeply disillusioned when he realized that the documents contradicted just about everything Hubbard had been saying about his past. When he tried to get the church to correct the record, he was punished and left the organization in 1981.

As Bruce Livesey explained in an excellent profile of Armstrong in the Canadian quarterly Maisonneuve in 2008, the lengths Scientology would go to surveil, harass, and litigate Armstrong into a life of poverty and dodging enormous court penalties is almost too hard to believe. Writes Livesey…

The combined loss of Armstrong and these documents clearly panicked the church. In the spring of 1982, Scientology issued two “Suppressive Person” declarations against Armstrong, which listed charges including theft of church property and obtaining money under false pretenses. Amazingly, the church created a plan called “The Gerry Armstrong Project,” which laid out its intention to hunt him down, spy on him and find out what he was saying, including inventing cover stories to pump information from friends and acquaintances.

Scientology sued Armstrong in 1984 for the return of the Hubbard biographical papers, and got its ass handed to it. Judge Paul Breckenridge’s remarkably harsh ruling was one of the worst the church has ever been saddled with (we recently listed it as the second worst thing a judge has ever said about Scientology).

But later, in another lawsuit, Armstrong reluctantly signed a global settlement with several other plaintiffs which included the sort of strict gag order that Debbie Cook is now struggling with. When Scientology then continued to spread negative information about him, Armstrong believed that the church was in violation of the agreement and felt compelled to speak out. And speak out he did, again and again, which Scientology then used as ammunition in American courts, convincing judges that Armstrong was ringing up higher and higher penalties, at $50,000 an utterance. Armstrong had to hightail it out of the country, going to Germany for a while before returning to his native Canada.

Naturally, Armstrong has been keeping a close watch on the Debbie Cook saga, and was fascinated to see her gag order when it became public through the lawsuit.

“I must say, even at this point, I’m a little suspicious about their motivations and what they want to prove,” he says of the church’s lawsuit.

One difference in their cases is that Armstrong was out of Scientology when he was sued. Cook, on the other hand, was still reportedly a member in good standing when she sent out her New Year’s Eve e-mail. I asked Armstrong if he thought that made this case somewhat unique.

“It’s very odd, and therefore somewhat suspect,” he answered. “It’s even odd that they went to Bexar County, Texas. Why would they take a chance in that court?”

He then answered his own question: “You have a lot of lawyers guiding this. It’s not just [Scientology leader David] Miscavige’s madness that we’re looking at here. I think we’re looking at something more sinister. They’re thinking of all the other people who might speak out.”

Hitting Cook hard, then, is a way to remind the many other former staff workers who have vowed to remain silent. Armstrong also pointed out the agreement’s schedule of penalties, which, if followed to the letter, would result in penalties in the millions of dollars.

“There’s no logic to this, and I bet there was no discussion with her as to the reasonableness to the amounts of what are penalties before she signed it,” Armstrong says. But even if she did, in her right mind, sign such a draconian document, that still shouldn’t preclude her freedom of religion, he adds.

“The freedom of religion necessitates the right to leave a religion and change one’s mind. And that would include the agreements you made in that religion. You have to have that freedom,” he says. “You can no more silence someone about their religious experiences in Scientology than you could for someone in Christianity.”

Armstrong notes that in the International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998 by Congress and used subsequently to criticize nations like France and Germany who give Scientology a hard time for its abuses, the US admonished the countries of the world to follow Article 18 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the words, “This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief…”

“Scientology is in flagrant violation of that US code. Of course, this is supposed to apply to foreign countries, but of course the standard has to apply to the US,” he says. “Scientology should be forced to give religious freedom. If someone wants to leave, that should be the end of their involvement. That’s what the Armstrong case represents.

“You just cannot trump that religious freedom issue with this kind of a commercial contract,” he says.

One thing we’ll most be interested to learn about tomorrow’s hearing has been in the back of our minds since we watched a very odd video last week.

Former church officials Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder made a very cheeky video public at Rathbun’s blog, which showed them mugging in front of The Alamo, and talking about the dictatorial tendencies of Santa Anna.

The pair, I hear, were in San Antonio in case they might be called to testify at last week’s temporary restraining order hearing, and will be in San Antonio again tomorrow.

What would they have to testify about? Well, based on what I’ve talked to them both about in the past, I have a pretty good idea.

Well before the lawsuit made Debbie Cook’s gag order public, Rathbun and Rinder told me how, when they were still working for Miscavige at the highest levels of Scientology, they had helped the church leader come up with the current form of the gag orders that the church has been handing out in recent years, along with substantial cash payments, like so much candy. Those gag orders were designed to be abusive, they told me — that was the point of them.

Will Rathbun and Rinder get a chance to say that tomorrow or Friday in a San Antonio courtroom? I guess we’re about to find out.

Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice

January 1: Scientology rocked by allegations of greed in e-mail to 12,000 church members

January 3: Is Scientology imploding? Watching the panic after a former executive dares to question church management

January 4: Scientology in crisis: Debbie Cook’s transformation from enforcer to whistleblower

January 6: Scientology in turmoil: Debbie Cook’s e-mail, annotated

January 31: Scientology sues Debbie Cook over her New Year’s Eve e-mail

February 2: Debbie Cook files to dissolve Scientology’s temporary restraining order: We talk to her attorney, Ray Jeffrey

February 3: Debbie Cook’s motion denied: Scientology’s restraining order remains in place until Thursday hearing

February 4: Scientology wants it both ways: The church’s opposite legal strategies in Florida and Texas

Also, please see our primer, “What is Scientology?

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications.

@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega


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