Court Ruling Strengthens Hands of Church Governing Boards

A Legal challenge to the leadership of the Christian Science Church has been thrown out of court in a case that affirms the right of religious groups to conduct financial affairs independent of judicial review.

The ruling ends 3-1/2 years of litigation over whether the church's board of directors and other officers should stand trial in civil court for alleged financial mismanagement. From 1988 to 1992, the board authorized spending hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts that were ultimately unsuccessful to build profitable TV and radio offshoots of the church's newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor.

Two church members who objected to the expenditures filed suit against 14 current and former church leaders, charging they mismanaged the spending of $450 million and pushed the church to the brink of insolvency. Elizabeth Weaver of Glen Arbor, Mich., and Roy Varner of Houston asked a Massachusetts court to order the church leadership to comply with their interpretation of the bylaws. They say the bylaws include safeguards that would have prevented the losses. They also asked for a full accounting of money spent on the ventures.

The church responded, saying it had already made unprecedented disclosures about its finances and had always maintained a net worth in excess of $100 million. Officials also disagreed with the Weaver-Varner interpretation of the bylaws, saying the board of directors alone is empowered to conduct all church business.

Two state judges ordered the case to trial. But late last week the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts' highest court, ruled unanimously (7 to 0) that Ms. Weaver and Mr. Varner have no legal right to file such a suit.

THE court found that the church's deeds of trust and bylaws, written by the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, "granted the power to transact all church business exclusively to the board [of directors]." Gary Jones, the church's general counsel, called the decision the legal equivalent of a grand slam. "It is very decisive and an extremely important precedent in Massachusetts law," he says. Because the case was decided entirely on an issue of state law, there are no grounds for a federal appeal, lawyers say.

Varner released a written statement saying he and Weaver disagreed with the opinion. "This opinion practically removes the legal accountability of the board of directors for properly transacting the church's business - an accountability to its members, who are beneficiaries according to Article XXIV, Sec. 2 of the church manual," Varner says.

Church officials maintain that Mrs. Eddy intended that the board be governed by its prayerful obedience to the manual rather than accountability to individual members. Stephen Shapiro, who argued the church's case, says the ruling means that no matter how controversial an issue may be, individual members cannot take policy matters away from the board and present them to civil courts.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a coalition of religious groups that supported the church, says the case had the potential to disrupt churches across the country. "If this case had been allowed to go forward, then any disgruntled member of any church would have been able to go to court and challenge any decision about the management or finances of a church," Mr. Laycock says.

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