A MASSACHUSETTS judge has ruled that two members of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, can proceed with a lawsuit against 14 current and former church officials over alleged misuse of church funds spent on media activities in the past. The church itself is not a defendant in the suit.
The Sept. 14 ruling by Suffolk Superior Court Judge J. Harold Flannery rejected a request by some of the officials to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the church was ``hierarchical'' and also that the members lacked legal standing to bring the action. The judge ruled that individual members have a direct interest in how the church is governed.
In their request that the suit be dismissed, the church officials also contended that, under the First Amendment's separation of church and state, a civil court lacks jurisdiction to intervene in a church's governance and management.
Judge Flannery ruled that a court, using ``neutral principles of law,'' could adjudicate most of the claims raised by the plaintiffs without intruding into matters of theology or church doctrine.
The judge did not rule on the plaintiffs' allegations of financial mismanagement.
And Judge Flannery's decision may not stand if the defendants appeal the ruling and win. Church officials are considering whether to file an appeal, according to Gary Jones, general counsel of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston (The Mother Church).
In a statement released Thursday, church spokesman M. Victor Westberg said: ``The church will continue to resist this attempt by two of its members, who oppose the church's board of directors, to try to use judicial power to inject themselves personally into the governance of the church, its books and records, and the activities and publications through which it carries out its religious mission.''
The ruling allows the plaintiffs to proceed with three of the four claims in the suit, which was filed last December. The rejected claim asserted that the officials violated a church bylaw requiring ``wisdom, economy, and brotherly love'' to characterize church proceedings.
The judge ruled that a court would have to involve itself in church doctrine to deal with this claim.
``We regard the judge's order as a victory on a very preliminary procedural point,'' says Allan van Gestel, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. ``This is still just the beginning of the litigation.''
``There is great danger when any secular court begins to act as the arbiter of the religious purposes and activities of a religious organization,'' Mr. Westberg said.
The lawsuit was filed by Elizabeth Weaver of Traverse City, Mich., a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals; Roy Varner, a management consultant and writer in Houston; and an organization they helped found called Members for the Manual Inc. Judge Flannery removed the organization as a plaintiff, however.
Mr. Varner and Judge Weaver allege that some members of the board of directors of The Mother Church, trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society, and other church executives violated church bylaws by investing in ``speculative'' television ventures and a monthly magazine in the late 1980s.
The church lost about $360 million on television and the magazine, according to church figures. The Monitor Channel was shut down in 1992, and the magazine, World Monitor, was discontinued last year.
Church officials have defended the media ventures as an appropriate effort to extend the reach of the church's publishing activities and as a way to offset the operating deficits incurred by this newspaper for several decades.
``The church firmly maintains that its officers and employees have acted in accordance with the Manual and the Deed of Trust establishing the Christian Science Publishing Society,'' Westberg said.
In their suit, Weaver and Varner ask that the court direct church officials to obey the financial bylaws of the Church Manual, the governing document written by church founder Mary Baker Eddy. They seek what they call full disclosure of the church's media expenditures. They do not request monetary damages or restitution, except legal expenses.
``Our purpose is to align the management of church finances with the Manual,'' Varner said. ``Our focus is on principles, not people.''
``We are not suggesting the overthrow of the church's government or the installation of a new form of government,'' Varner added.
Church officials assert that this is precisely what this suit would do by attempting to influence church policy through the courts. ``Nowhere in the Church Manual ... is there any authority for such action,'' Westberg's statement said.
Mr. van Gestel, the plaintiffs' lawyer, estimates that ``a trial is at least one year and maybe two years down the road.''