At the edge of arid foothills far outside Los Angeles, hundreds of Scientology followers live on a gated, 500-acre campus and work long hours for almost no pay reproducing the works of founder L. Ron Hubbard and creating the church's teaching and promotional materials.
The church says its 5,000 so-called Sea Organization members are religious devotees akin to monks who are exempt from wage requirements and overtime. But two lawsuits filed by two former Sea Org members, as they are known, allege the workers are little more than slave laborers, forced to work 100-hour weeks for pennies and threatened with manual labor if they cause trouble.
Marc Headley and his wife, Claire, are seeking back pay and overtime that could add up to $1 million each, according to their attorney, Barry Van Sickle.
Experts say the plaintiffs face an uphill battle; one similar lawsuit in state court has already been dismissed, although the plaintiff plans to appeal.
But the dispute has nonetheless focused unwelcome attention on the Sea Org, which operates as a nerve center for the church's most important business. While Sea Org members hold positions of authority within the international church, from the public relations team to the top leadership, lower-ranking members make up much of the work force.
The members are Scientology's most devoted followers: they sign a billion-year pledge, vow not to have children and live and work communally.
Scientology has been sued by disgruntled members before, but experts believe these suits are the first to use labor law to challenge the premise that the Sea Organization is akin to a fraternal religious order.
A victory for plaintiffs would "certainly go to the heart of Scientology's self-identification as a religion," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and author of a scholarly book on Scientology.
"If they were to win this suit and the people who are in the Sea Org decided they wanted money, that would lead to, if not the collapse, then a great deal of harm," he said. "They depend upon these people."
Marc Headley devoted half his life to churning out the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard on an assembly line before working on in-house films and designing the audiovisual displays seen in Scientology churches worldwide.
Headley, who claims he escaped the gated facility in 2005, says he and others were threatened with forced labor and psychological abuse if they caused trouble.
"These folks are working for a year or two or three in a row on an hour or two of sleep a night. They're zombies," Van Sickle said. "If people had some money in their pockets or a good night's sleep, they probably wouldn't stick around."
The Church of Scientology vehemently denies the allegations and claims the plaintiffs are liars looking for money.
"When you sign up as a Sea Org member, you're signing up as a member of a religious order," Jessica Feshbach, a church spokeswoman and 16-year Sea Org member, said of the plaintiffs. "You're a volunteer. You sign a contract that says, 'I'm not going to be paid minimum wage and I know that.'"
Headley's federal lawsuit, which alleges labor violations at the Hemet facility, is set for trial in November in Los Angeles. His wife, Claire, makes similar allegations, but also claims she was coerced into having an abortion to comply with the Sea Org members' no-child policy, Van Sickle said.
Church officials say Sea Org members are not asked to have abortions, but must leave the order if they become pregnant.
The lawsuits are similar to unsuccessful claims filed by an ex-seminarian who left the Roman Catholic church and sued for minimum wage over menial labor, said Melton, the Scientology expert. A federal appeals court last week upheld a finding that minimum wage law did not apply.
Headley joined Sea Org at 16 after being raised by Scientologist parents. He moved to the gated campus near Hemet in 1989.
At first, he devoted himself to Hubbard's teachings, a blend of Eastern religion, alternative psychology and management theory.
Practitioners believe they can eliminate negative energy from past lives through study and "auditing" sessions that use electronic devices called "e-meters" to detect mental trauma. Adherents hope to attain a state called "clear" before becoming "Operating Thetans," or pure spirits.
The Sea Org traces its roots to 1967, when Hubbard, who was also a science fiction writer, took his most dedicated followers on sea voyages to explore early civilizations and spread his teachings. Its members — called ministers — live communally and often wear maritime-style uniforms with ranks.
Headley, 36, says he began to question the religion while working for an average of 39 cents an hour to mass produce cassettes that he says cost the church $1 to make but sold for $75. He also helped make CDs and DVDs and the expensive e-meters used in auditing sessions before graduating to working on in-house film production, he says.
In 15 years, he said he earned $29,000, a total he surpassed in his first year of business on his own.
Church leaders, who have labeled Headley a heretic, dispute his story and say he was an incompetent troublemaker.
Sea Org members happily receive room and board, medical and dental care, a $50 weekly personal allowance, three weeks of annual vacation and free auditing and religious instruction for their lifetime devotion, church officials said.
Each day includes two hours of Scientology study and short meal breaks.
At Golden Era Productions, about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles, a guard keeps watch at the compound's main gate.
Inside, some 400 Sea Org members live in hotel-like dorms modeled on Scottish highland architecture and eat in a log cabin-style cafeteria that features super-sized bottles of multivitamins on each table. The grounds include a golf course, a large lake and a network of paths.
The facility is calm — until the topic of Headley comes up. During an AP reporter's visit, which was videotaped and photographed by the church, spokesman Tommy Davis repeatedly admonished the reporter for inquiring about Headley and other detractors, whom he called "terrorists" for associating with Anonymous, a group that has targeted Scientology with protests and has hacked into the church's Web site.
"We're kind of sick of people who think that they can do this with us, people who used to work here, who can leave, who are lying — and we know they're lying," said Davis. "It's a pretty nice place to live and work, and we feel that way."
Headley, who has written a book about his experiences, said during a phone interview that he endured 24-hour surveillance, roll call three times a day and censored mail. Sleeping quarters were watched at night, floodlights illuminated the campuses and escape routes were blocked during security drills. The church denies that, saying Sea Org members are free to come and go as they please.
Headley said he decided to leave in 2005 after church officials accused him of reselling old film equipment. They said they were going to begin investigating his actions and place him in a rehabilitation camp.
Davis said Headley embezzled more than $13,000, but they never filed suit against him or sought criminal charges.
Headley says he was given permission to sell old equipment on the Internet, and that he never stole anything. He claims he fled on a motorbike with $200, two days' worth of clothes and a cell phone. Security gave chase, but when Headley crashed his bike in a ditch a passer-by called 911 and sheriff's deputies arrived, he said. He thinks the officers scared off his pursuers and prevented his recapture.
Headley's wife got out of Golden Era two weeks later by fleeing a "minder" who had been sent with her to an off-campus doctor's appointment, Headley said. She found her husband through an old e-mail address he never shared with the church.
"There's no shortage of the things Scientology will do to silence their critics," said Headley, who now lives with his wife and two kids in Burbank, where he runs his own audiovisual installation business.
"Hopefully, we can end this and other people won't have to suffer like I did."
© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.