Mass. Appeals Court Agrees to Hear Church Suit

THE Massachusetts Court of Appeals has agreed to take up a dispute about the government of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston.

It will consider whether a lower court should have rejected a request to dismiss a lawsuit against former and present church officials.

Church officers had asked the Suffolk Superior Court for an immediate judgment terminating a suit brought by Elizabeth Weaver of Glen Arbor, Mich., and Roy Varner of Houston, Texas. A Superior Court judge denied the request Aug. 30.

Ms. Weaver and Mr. Varner charge that the defendant officers wrongfully spent hundreds of millions of dollars on media ventures between 1988 and 1992. They allege the expenditures violated provisions of the Manual of The Mother Church and two deeds of trust, all written by Mary Baker Eddy, the church's founder. They want the court to enforce their interpretation of the bylaws and other governing documents, and also seek a detailed accounting of all expenditures from 1988 to the present relating to the media expansion by the church, which publishes this newspaper.

The defendants, including present and former members of The Christian Science Board of Directors, maintain that the plaintiffs lack the legal basis, or standing, to contest the government, management, and operation of the church in court. They also assert that the First Amendment to the US Constitution deprives the court of jurisdiction to hear the case because churches have a right of self-government free of civil court interference.

In its decision Nov. 9, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals said the dispute "may implicate issues of the internal organization of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston and, therefore, may involve prohibited intrusion in liberties protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."

The two-page decision by Judge George Jacobs, copies of which became available Nov. 10, noted that "the accounting and injunctive relief and the discovery sought by the plaintiffs, in some respects, may impinge on First Amendment liberties. In order to avoid irremediable encroachment on those liberties by the process of judicial inquiry and perhaps define the permissible limits of this litigation, if it is to proceed, it is appropriate that interlocutory appellate review be undertaken."

"I do draw some comfort from the language Judge Jacobs used," says Theodore Dinsmoor, attorney for the church officers. "I think the fact Judge Jacobs has focused on the First Amendment protection for the autonomy of religious organizations, which would include their right to decide matters of internal organization, governance, and polity for themselves, is very important."

"My view is that the significance of the decision is that it permits the appeals court to assess the First Amendment limitations on the exercise of judicial power before the parties proceed with continued litigation," he adds.

Allan van Gestel, attorney for Weaver and Varner, views the decision differently. "I don't really think it is very significant," he says. "I think it demonstrates a feeling in the court, with which I fully agree, that there are important issues of church-state relations involved. I do not think that the result of the appeal will be a termination of the case, but rather we will all have further guidance as to what is permissible and what is not permissible."

ARGUING that allowing the case to proceed to trial would cause "immediate and irreparable harm" to The First Church of Christ, Scientist and other denominations, some 13 organizations filed a friend of the court brief in support of the defendants' request for appellate review. The groups include Americans United for Separation of Church and State; the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.; and the United States Catholic Conference.

The friend of the court brief argued that "It is flatly inconsistent with the First Amendment for a secular court to determine a church's scheme of government, to impose its interpretation of a church's foundational documents, or to review a church governing body's decisions about priorities, plans, and expenditures in pursuit of a church's basic mission."

It is possible that the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts' highest tribunal, may decide to take the case from the Court of Appeals. The defendants or the plaintiffs can also ask the SJC to take the appeal.

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