A federal court trial starting today hinges on five days and nights in 1991, when Jason Scott was forcibly taken from his mother's Bellevue home to the Washington coast for religious "deprogramming."
Scott claims deprogrammer Rick Ross and others held him in a room, subjecting him "to a nearly constant barrage of verbal abuse intended to force Scott to renounce his faith," according to court papers.
Scott is suing Ross, three associates, and the Cult Awareness Network, an organization that Scott's mother, Kathy Tonkin, contacted when she became concerned about his membership in Bellevue's Life Tabernacle Church, affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church.
But the issues at stake, say the parties involved, go far beyond the scope of a small Bellevue church and the tactics one mother used with her oldest son.
The case has become the latest to debate the role of religious deprogramming, which often involves holding people against their will while trying to convince them to disavow their religious beliefs.
The players in this trial are familiar adversaries. On one side is Scott's attorney, Kendrick Moxon, long-time legal counsel to the Church of Scientology, who has litigated several cases against the Cult Awareness Network. Scott's legal connection to the Church of Scientology is unclear.
Moxon and a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology say the Cult Awareness Network, and deprogrammers like Ross, kidnap people in religious groups and force them to quit.
"I admire Jason's tenacity, because he's not prepared to just let them get away with it," says Leisa Goodman, Scientology spokeswoman. "We support him because he's prepared to make a stand."
But Cult Awareness Network (CAN) leaders say Scott's lawsuit is simply the latest in a legal campaign backed by the Church of Scientology to bankrupt CAN and people involved in deprogramming.
Ross, who points to his involvement in several high-profile cases and appearance on national television talk shows, says the lawsuit is an attempt by the Church of Scientology to silence his efforts.
"This isn't about Jason Scott," Ross says. "This isn't about his civil rights. They recruited him to harass me."
Tonkin, who started attending the Bellevue church in 1989, decided to leave after about two years of strongly following its religious teachings. Scott, who was 18, and two other brothers wanted to stay.
Questioning the motives of the church and fearing that her sons had become too involved, Tonkin called the Cult Awareness Network for information and advice. She then hired Ross.
Two of the sons were deprogrammed in a family house. Jason Scott went to police after his deprogramming.
Ross and others who took Scott to Ocean Shores were arrested and charged with unlawful imprisonment by the Grays Harbor County prosecutor's office. Mark Workman and Charles Rotroff pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of coercion, said Joe Wheeler, a Grays Harbor County prosecutor. Ross was acquitted after a jury trial in January 1994. Scott filed the civil lawsuit in federal court the same month.
Specifically, the jury will decide whether the defendants violated Scott's civil rights, including the right "to practice and believe in the religion of his choice . . . free from force, violence, threats, retaliation or intimidation."
The trial is being held in Judge John Coughenour's court in Seattle.