Showing posts with label religious symbols. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religious symbols. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Church Pastor Imprisoned in Trademark Case

Photograph of the Accused Church
We have previously discussed how religious symbols and church names can be trademarked under federal law.

These legal issues are not strictly academic.

Indeed, just ask a Church Pastor who is now in prison as a result of them.

Walter "Chick" McGill was apprehended and turned over to San Bernardino County law enforcement on the campus of church-run Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California on July 13.
McGill had used the phrase “Creation Seventh-day Adventist” to name his small church congregation in Guys, Tennessee, seen left.
In 2005, the Adventist world church’s Office of General Counsel claims that it first demanded that McGill cease using the name “Seventh-day Adventist” on his church and on several websites.  One year later, the church filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against McGill, suing him for wrongful use of “Seventh-day Adventist.” 
Photograph of Walter McGill
In May of this year, the U.S. District Court made a finding that McGill was in contempt for not complying with court orders to remove the signs, and issuing a warrant for his arrest.
In April, McGill had told a Tennessee news team that "[w]e really would like to comply with the Court Orders.  We respect the Courts, we respect the law.  But in this case the law is violating our consciences and we must put our consciences before the law."  He also said he planned a hunger strike once imprisoned.
Responding to McGill’s recent arrest, Seventh-day Adventist Church officials have emphasized that McGill was imprisoned strictly for ignoring the court’s orders.  “Mr. McGill is free to engage in any ministry he wants, preach whatever he wants, say whatever he wants,” McFarland said. “What he simply cannot do is falsely associate himself with the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church."
Garrett Caldwell, Adventist world church Public Relations director and church spokesman, added that in cases such as McGill’s, the church is fundamentally protecting its identity.
“People understand what identity theft means on a personal level and how devastating it can be to an individual or a family,” Caldwell said.
“When a congregation that has never had a connection with our denomination, and who does not wish to, because of differing beliefs, wants to simply co-opt our name, we should not overlook this or find this acceptable. To do so would be irresponsible on our part,” he added.
Video of an interview with an Assistant Pastor of the accused Church is below.  He accuses the official Seventh day Adventist Church of lying about the facts, and claims that his church prefers to not be confused with the established Seventh day Adventist church.

In any event, regardless of the merits, as we have previously noted, and as evidenced by the video below, the application of current commercial trademark laws in the context of religious liberty remains an uneasy fit.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Can Religious Symbols Be Trademarked?

At the intersection of intellectual property, culture and the First Amendment lies the interesting question:  Can religious symbols be trademarked under U.S. law?

In short, the answer is yes.

There is no inherent or statutory bar for a symbol that has acquired religious connotations and spiritual meaning to a group of believers to become protected as a federally registered commercial trademark, provided that certain legal conditions are met.

For example, the mark must be "used in commerce" and become associated with a "single source."

These legal requirements demand that some form of commercial goods or services are offered in connection with the mark by a single entity, either a church, not-for-profit organization or corporation.  Therefore, a "generic" religious symbol such as a crucifix would not be protectable because it represents a system of beliefs that is not associated with a single identifiable "source."  That is, the Roman Catholic Church could lay a claim to it, but so could Orthodox, Protestant denominations, and thousands of other Christian organizations.

Additionally, even the name of a church or religion can be trademarked.  For example, "THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH" is a federally registered trademark for religious instruction services (see right).

In one federal lawsuit testing the bounds of these concepts, the Te-Ta-Ma Truth Foundation-Family (the “Foundation”) sued the World Church of the Creator (the “World Church”), alleging that the World Church infringed its registered trademark for “Church of the Creator.”

The World Church was one of three primary divisions of the white supremacist movement. The mission of the Defendant was twofold: (1) to ensure the survival, expansion and advancement of the white race and (2) to eliminate Jews, blacks and “mud- races.”  The Foundation, on the other hand, was a denomination professing universal love and respect, and actively included everyone who wished to join.  In order words, the beliefs ensconced by the World Church were diametrically opposed to the beliefs practiced by the Foundation and therefore fundamentally incompatible.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit  Court of Appeals held that the World Church infringed the Foundation’s trademark. The court held that the Foundation’s name did not preclude others from distinguishing themselves and implied that the name encapsulated the Foundation’s identity: “[U]sing ‘Church of the Creator’ as a denominational name leaves ample options for other sects to distinguish themselves and achieve separate identities.”

The issue affects all organized religions.  For example, a Lubavitch Jewish religious group that uses a symbol of the Torah and Hebrew letters on a shield has litigated whether or not this symbol can legitimately function as a trademark. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board held that it could.

In an article titled "Register Trademarks and Keep the Faith:  Trademarks, Religion and Identity," Professor David A. Simon writes about some of the issues confronted when religious organizations wage secular court battles over the unauthorized use of religious trademarks.

Professor Simon notes that such litigation is not a traditional trademark dispute.  Such cases are focused on protecting rights to compete in commerce.  Here, the dispute is driven by a unique cultural struggle to protect religious identity, but the parties are forced to use the secular litigation system to resolve essentially cultural, "identity" disputes.

He suggests a novel approach to resolving such disputes that is modeled on the Uniform Dispute Resolution Procedure ("UDRP") triggered when there are disputes surrounding the legitimacy of Internet domain names.

In any event, even if permitted under intellectual property law, applying secular trademark concepts to legal disputes involving religious identity and cultural control remains an uneasy fit.