BOSTON — A CALIFORNIA court decision has moved The First Church of Christ, Scientist, one step closer to receiving a multimillion-dollar bequest tied to the publication of a controversial biography of church founder Mary Baker Eddy.
The state's Second District Court of Appeal last week upheld a lower court order calling for termination of a trust and distribution of its funds to two California charities and the Christian Science Church, publisher of this newspaper. The trust was established by the will of Bella Mabury.
The bulk of her estate was to go the church, provided it published the book "The Destiny of the Mother Church," written by Bliss Knapp. Knapp, a former church officer, was Mabury's brother-in-law.
If the church failed to comply with publication requirements set forth in the Mabury trust, it would receive nothing. The money would then be split between Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., and Museum Associates, which operates the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
IN 1991, the church entered into an agreement with the Mabury trustee to publish "Destiny." But a dispute arose between the church, Stanford, and Museum Associates over whether the church had complied with the terms of the trust.
A key item in question was whether "Destiny" was "prominently displayed and maintained for sale ... in substantially all Christian Science Reading Rooms," as the trust required. Because of a controversy over the book's contents, some reading rooms refused to carry it.
After a year of litigation, in January 1993 the institutions entered into settlement negotiations, and on Oct. 12, 1993, announced an agreement that gives the church 53 percent of the Mabury trust assets. Stanford and Museum Associates split 47 percent. Published reports put the trust's value in the neighborhood of $80 million.
Several of Mabury's heirs objected to the settlement agreement. The trial court heard their objections in December 1993 and then approved the settlement agreement. The heirs subsequently appealed.
In its 3-to-0 decision July 5, the Second District Court of Appeal found the heirs had no interest in the trust and thus "are without standing to object to the disposition of the trust estate."
The heirs have 40 days from the date of the decision to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
If the state Supreme Court does not grant review, the balance of the trust will be released to Stanford, Museum Associates, and the church.