Chrissie Carnell Bixler was still a teen when she visited the Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre International in Los Angeles for the first time. It was 1997, and her then-boyfriend Danny Masterson led the way to the revivalist replica of a 17th-century Normandy castle straight down the hill from the Hollywood sign. Before they arrived, Masterson — who would go on to win fame playing Steven Hyde on That ’70s Show from 1998 to 2006 and become one of the church’s most celebrated members — prepped her for the visit by instructing her to sign whatever documents were placed in front of her there, Carnell Bixler says. Otherwise, Masterson allegedly told her, she would be declared a “Suppressive Person,” an enemy of the church who’s essentially excommunicated from friends and family within the organization.
The visit would mark a turning point for Carnell Bixler, 43, kicking off a nearly 25-year saga with the church that’s inextricably linked to her claims Masterson raped her on two separate occasions in 2001, when they were dating. She broke up with Masterson shortly after the alleged rapes and stopped attending Scientology services in 2012; but when she reported Masterson to police in 2016, Carnell Bixler says, agents of the church began harassing her in retaliation.
She’s not alone. Two anonymous Jane Doe accusers and a woman named Marie Bobette Riales, who dated Masterson in 2003, also have accused the 45-year-old actor of rape. And in 2019, the four women, along with Carnell Bixler’s husband Cedric Bixler-Zavala, lead singer of the Mars Volta, sued Masterson and the church, claiming they were “systematically stalked” after going to the police. Among their allegations: that church members staked out their homes, sent them threatening messages, and subjected them to everything from wiretapping to hacking and credit card fraud. Carnell Bixler and Bixler-Zavala even claim Scientologists killed their dog.
Tuesday marks a critical hearing in the dispute. While a criminal case against Masterson, who was charged with three counts of rape last year, is heading to a public trial, the accusers’ civil lawsuit was derailed in December, when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Steven J. Kleifield ruled that all the plaintiffs save Riales had signed arbitration agreements with the Church of Scientology that forfeited their rights to sue the organization. Instead, the judge said, they must take their claims before an ecclesiastical tribunal composed of three Scientologists deemed to be “in good standing” with the church.
The four plaintiffs won the right to keep arguing their side after the California Supreme Court unanimously decided in May that Kleifield’s decision warranted further review.
“To say my wife and I are confused and outraged by Judge Kleifield’s ruling is an understatement,” Bixler-Zavala tells Rolling Stone via email ahead of the Nov. 2 oral arguments. “Not only is it immoral to force victims to be in a room filled with their abusers, and supporters thereof, but it should most definitely be found unlawful, as a violation of our First Amendment right to religious freedom.”
Bixler-Zavala adds that the order “stripped away the constitutional rights of me, my wife, and every other plaintiff involved in this civil lawsuit. Instead of affording us the rights to pursue legal action against the church and Mr. Masterson for their intentional and tortious conduct in the justice system of our state and country, Judge Kleifield is forcing us back into the church’s ‘justice’ system. A justice system that is anything but just.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, we unpack the thorny details of this complicated case.
What are the criminal allegations against Danny Masterson?
Carnell Bixler and the two Jane Does claim they were raped by Masterson after likely being drugged on separate occasions between 2001 and 2003. Their allegations led the Los Angeles County District Attorney to charge Masterson with three counts of rape by force or fear on June 17, 2020. He has pleaded not guilty and is out on bail awaiting trial. The three women testified at a probable cause hearing in May, recalling their alleged rapes in graphic detail.
Carnell Bixler told the court she was raped by Masterson twice at the end of 2001 when she was 23 and they were still involved in a domestic relationship. She said the first assault involved the actor initiating penetrative sex with her while she was sleeping and refusing to stop when she woke up and discovered what was happening. She claimed Masterson pinned her down with “all of his weight,” hit her in the face, spit on her, and called her “white trash” after she pulled his hair to get him to stop. She said the second attack followed about a month later, with Masterson allegedly drugging her wine at a restaurant and penetrating her anally while she was unconscious.
Jane Doe No. 1 testified at the hearing that she felt drugged after Masterson gave her a red vodka drink during a gathering at his Hollywood home in April 2003. She said the actor “commanded” her to strip and get his Jacuzzi, where she feared she might slip underwater and drown. The woman said he later carried her upstairs and raped her vaginally and anally as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Jane Doe No. 2 testified that Masterson also gave her a drink at his home that caused her to go “limp” like “a rag doll.” The woman said Masterson ordered her to get in his Jacuzzi, using a voice like a “drill sergeant,” and raped her in his upstairs bathroom and bedroom as she struggled to gain control of her faculties.
Carnell Bixler said when she tried to report her experience to church officials, an ethics officer told her she must have done something to “pull in” and “deserve” what happened. She testified the officer also showed her church doctrine stating it was a “high crime” to report a fellow Scientologist to law enforcement. Carnell Bixler said the threat of being declared suppressive left her in a state of “terror.”
For his part, Masterson has called the allegations “outrageous” and “ridiculous.” If convicted as charged, he faces a possible maximum sentence of 45 years to life in prison.
In paperwork asking Judge Kleifield to dismiss Masterson as a defendant in the civil lawsuit, the actor’s lawyer, Andrew Brettler, said the women “unnecessarily dragged” him into their dispute with the church in a “shameless ploy for attention.”
“Plaintiffs do not allege that Mr. Masterson personally committed — or instructed others to commit — any of the allegedly wrongful conduct outlined in the complaint,” Brettler wrote in April 2020.
What’s at stake for the accusers?
In March 2020 statements to the court, the women said compelling them to attend religious arbitration could cause them “permanent emotional distress and trauma.” They also claim subjecting them to Scientology arbitration would violate their own First Amendment Rights, considering they’ve rejected the religion and their lawsuit involves alleged conduct that took place after they left the church.
Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, is due to present the plaintiffs’ oral argument on Tuesday. She tells Rolling Stone that forcing the women to arbitrate in accordance with the principles of a religion they’ve abandoned “flies in the face” of their own rights to freedom of religion, including the right to exit a religious organization. She also calls the Scientology arbitration process inherently flawed.
“It doesn’t pass the laugh test to argue that a member in good standing of this religious organization is going to come in completely neutrally toward people who have escaped,” Hamilton says. “These are people who have left an organization that demonizes those who’ve left, and they’re expected to expect fairness from a tribunal orchestrated to persecute them.”
The four plaintiffs also say they have “no recollection” of signing the arbitration agreements at the center of the battle. In statements to the court filed March 6, 2020, they say paperwork was part of the church’s intake process, but it was never transparent. Church officials “pressured” them to sign documents quickly, refused to provide copies, and said refusal to sign would lead to disciplinary action or being barred from services and coursework, they said. “I understood that if I attempted to read documents given to me for my signature that I would cause an upset and be subject to discipline,” Carnell Bixler told the court in her statement. Jane Doe No. 1 said: “I was told that if I refused to sign documents I would be sent for ‘ethics handling.’” Bixler-Zavala said he only took part in “services” on two or three occasions, never considered himself an actual member of the church, and was told the document he was asked to sign “simply stated that I could not receive a refund for religious services rendered.”
What is the argument for forcing the women into religious arbitration?
In his December ruling, Judge Kleifield said he didn’t have the authority to question Scientology’s practices with respect to the lawsuit. “Whether the rules of Scientology are fair as applied to plaintiffs would require the court to delve into the doctrines of Scientology. The First Amendment Free Exercise Clause prevents the court from engaging in that inquiry,” he wrote.
Lawyers for the church agree, claiming in recent filings that religious arbitration is “commonplace” in the United States and that the church’s process is “inherently fair and reasonable” given the agreements freely signed by the plaintiffs.
“The Court has no basis to single-out and forbid Scientology, alone among all religions, from conducting religious arbitrations with members of its own religion as arbitrators,” lawyers William Forman and Robert Mangels wrote in a brief submitted to the 2nd District on Oct. 1. “Religious organizations have a constitutional right to accept or reject members on whatever basis they wish. They may impose conditions upon membership free from government intrusion.”
The lawyers further stated that while the plaintiffs have asserted Masterson himself could wind up as one of the arbitrators on the three-person panel, that is not the case. “As an interested party, Mr. Masterson may not serve as an arbitrator,” they wrote.
How does Scientology’s arbitration process work?
Rolling Stone contacted Luis Garcia, one of the few ex-Scientologists who’s been through the church’s arbitration process, for a rundown of his experience. Garcia tells Rolling Stone he considers the process “a joke.”
Garcia, 62, and his wife sued Scientology in 2013, claiming they were fraudulently induced to donate more than $380,000 to church coffers with claims their money was needed for a new facility and “altruistic” outreach. They allege they were duped by an organization that instead hoards its cash and uses it to fund the “lavish” lifestyles of certain high-ranking members.
The Garcia complaint was similarly diverted to arbitration by a federal judge who also worried about infringing on the First Amendment rights of a religious group. The couple, who left the church after decades as members, attended their arbitration in October 2017 at a printing facility run by the church in Commerce, California, southeast of Los Angeles.
“I had been preparing for three days. I had all my documents ready in the order I wanted to present them. I actually had a glimmer of hope it was going to be legit. I prepared a case,” Garcia tells Rolling Stone.
When he and his wife drove up to the security guards, they were told their friend in the car behind them who had agreed to act as Garcia’s non-speaking presentation assistant couldn’t even enter the parking lot. Garcia explained his wife had trouble reading English, and he even presented a letter from his ophthalmologist saying he required assistance due to a vision condition, but the guards wouldn’t budge, he says.
Once inside the building, the Garcias purportedly were seated in a guarded room where they waited for an entire day. Garcia says he brought hundreds of pages of material as his evidence and turned over copies when he arrived. He claims the vast majority was “censored” and not even shown to the arbitrators because it was deemed “entheta,” a Scientology term that means upsetting or disturbing.
By the time 4:30 p.m. rolled around and the arbitrators still hadn’t called the couple in, Garcia and his wife, frustrated and tired, opted to leave and return the following day, he says. The next morning, they finally met with the arbitrators for a hearing that took all of 50 minutes, Garcia says.
“I was not allowed to present anything meaningful; I was not allowed to call witnesses,” he says, adding that his lawyer, Ted Babbitt, previously had been barred from representing him at the proceeding. “They even censored promotional flyers produced by the church. I couldn’t present my case. They shut me down.”
Garcia says he was so disheartened by the experience, he and his wife left the building immediately afterward rather than return to the cold waiting room to await the panel’s decision. He later received a check for $18,000 in the mail. He says it was for pre-paid travel accommodations the couple never used. The arbitrators denied all of the couple’s other claims. Garcia mailed the check back. “It was an insult. I wasn’t allowed to present my case. They clearly just wanted me to go away. It was, like, ‘get lost’ money,” he says.
In a letter to the 2nd District filed this month in support of the women’s case, Garcia called the church’s arbitration process “unfair, one-sided and corrupt.” He claimed the chairman of the panel asked him at one point if he was aware that a “suppressive” person “ceases to have any rights as a Scientologist.” According to Garcia, the chairman even suggested he and his wife “get cleaned up and come back to the church.'”
In response to Garcia’s entry into the women’s case, the church shot back in its own filing Oct. 8, saying a federal judge previously denied Garcia’s motion to vacate the $18,000 award and found his complaints about the arbitration process “unpersuasive.” Garcia is still waiting for a ruling on his latest appeal pending with the 11th Circuit.