A federal appeals court has struck down a 1971 federal law extending the copyright of ``Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,'' the Christian Science textbook. The court sided with a group of church dissidents, United Christian Scientists (UCS), who claimed that they were hindered from periodically distributing recordings of materials about Christian Science.
UCS filed suit and a United States District Court held that the copyright extension was a violation of the concept of separation of church and state. A three-judge panel of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed in an opinion handed down Tuesday.
The appellate finding said that the law ``confers upon a religious body an unusual measure of copyright protection by unusual means, and in a fashion that interjects the federal government into internal church disputes over the authenticity of religious texts.''
Writing for the court, Judge Spotswood Robinson reasoned that ``though Science and Health is the pastor to Christian Scientists, it is not the office of Congress to grant continual, if indeed not perpetual, dominion over the text to First Church [The First Church of Christ, Scientist - The Mother Church] in order that it may serve that end.''
Science and Health, written by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, was originally published in 1875.
Until the author's death in 1910 she continued to revise the book and obtained copyrights on 17 of its editions.
By 1971 all editions - except the one in 1906 - had passed into the public domain. It is this edition that is authorized by the church and distributed globally through its reading rooms and other channels.
A private bill was passed by Congress in 1971, extending the copyright of Science and Health to the year 2046. A Senate report said this legislation was needed ``to preserve and maintain the integrity of the statement of the religious teachings of this denomination.''
It was this bill that the UCS challenged. Since 1978, this group said, it sought to distribute excerpts from Science and Health in the form of audiocassette tape recordings along with related commentary on Christian Science.
This week's ruling could be further appealed by the church, either to the full panel of the District of Columbia Circuit Court or directly to the US Supreme Court. No decision on such an appeal has yet been made.
Church officials stress that they will abide by whatever becomes the final determination of the court.
``Regardless of the ultimate result,'' said Ruth Elizabeth Jenks, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors, ``we have done and will do whatever is necessary to present the purity of the text [of Science and Health] as written by Mrs. Eddy.''
Mrs. Jenks also pointed out that Christian Scientists are strong supporters of First Amendment religious freedoms and the separation of church and state. She added that seeking a copyright extension of a book has not normally been considered unreasonable. Science and Health is a religious text, but it is widely available through bookstores and in libraries and other nonchurch outlets.
The board chairman also denies the UCS claim that the church has somehow tried to suppress ideas. ``We publish a highly respected daily newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, and are engaged in worldwide radio and television activities, Mrs. Jenks says. ``Far from suppressing ideas, we are eager to spread them.''