Judge Rejects Dismissal of Church Suit

Decision by Massachusetts judge to deny summary judgment on lawsuit against officers of the Christian Science Church moves suit closer to trial

A MASSACHUSETTS judge has rejected a motion for summary judgment sought by former and present officers of the Christian Science Church in a dispute over church government.

The ruling moves the case, a civil suit filed against church officials, one step closer to trial.

''I rule that the plaintiffs have valid claims for relief, that they have standing to bring them, and that neither the state or the federal Constitution is an impediment to the limited remedies sought by these plaintiffs,'' wrote Suffolk Superior Court Judge Vieri Volterra. The decision dated Aug. 30 was released Friday.

Before the case goes to trial, an appeal of Judge Volterra's decision is likely, says Theodore Dinsmoor, attorney for the defendants. ''The decision is somewhat perfunctory and does not address the evidence defendants submitted to the court. I think that if this evidence is reviewed at the appellate level, there is a high probability the decision will be reversed.''

Allan van Gestel, attorney for the plaintiffs, did not respond over the holiday weekend to phone messages seeking comment on the decision.

The charges

Plaintiffs Elizabeth Weaver of Glen Arbor, Mich., and Roy Varner of Houston, Texas, allege that present and former officers of The Mother Church and the Christian Science Publishing Society in Boston wrongfully spent hundreds of millions of dollars on media ventures between 1988 and 1992. They allege that these 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. The plaintiffs want the court to enforce their interpretation of the bylaws. They also seek a detailed accounting of church expenditures from 1988 to the present.

The defendants, including several present and former members of the Christian Science Board of Directors, argue the plaintiffs lack standing to sue. The defendants contend that Varner and Weaver are unable to show that as church members they have been deprived of any right to vote or of any personal, legal interest in the management, funds, or operation of the church that would entitle them to a remedy under the law.

Judge Volterra rejected the defendants' argument on standing. ''The plaintiffs are members of The Mother Church in a special and unique manner separate and distinct from any member of the public. Indeed, the plaintiffs have been elected to be members of The Mother Church, and they stand as beneficiaries of the property of The Mother Church as established by the wills and trusts of Mrs. Eddy,'' the judge wrote.

Church officials had also argued for summary judgment on the grounds that the First Amendment to the US Constitution deprives the court of jurisdiction to hear the case. Summary judgment is a means for obtaining a final decision in a case without lengthy presentation of evidence. The defendants contend that churches have a right to self-government free of interference from civil authority with respect to matters of internal church government as well as faith and doctrine.

Property dispute

Judge Volterra rejected the constitutional argument. ''I conclude that this is a dispute over the property of The Mother Church; that the Superior Court can properly adjudicate the dispute without violating the First Amendment of the federal Constitution.''

Volterra adopted reasoning used by Judge J. Harold Flannery in a Sept. 14, 1994, decision rejecting a previous motion by the defendants to dismiss the case. ''I agree with Judge Flannery that it is perfectly appropriate for this court ... to judicially review the church's documents to determine property issues. Plaintiffs have produced sufficient facts to demonstrate a triable issue'' regarding whether the defendants are in compliance with the Manual and the deeds of trust, Volterra wrote.

The judge added that the plaintiffs had ''demonstrated sufficient facts to be able ... to put before the trier of fact the issue of whether the church is congregational thus permitting a civil court to enforce the governing rules and regulations over property of that church.''

In an affidavit, the church directors assert that under the Manual the Christian Science Church is not congregational in form but instead that Mrs. Eddy provided a single, centralized governmental structure with final authority vested in the Christian Science Board of Directors. The defendants also asserted that all churches, regardless of form, are protected from judicial interference in matters of church governance.

In his decision on the request for summary judgment, Volterra said he was ''required to draw all inferences from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion'' - in this case the plaintiffs.

Volterra also said the law required him to resolve against the party seeking summary judgment (the defendants) ''all doubt concerning the existence'' of genuine factual disputes. The existence of such factual disputes leads to the denial of a motion for summary judgment.

Before the case goes to trial, an appeal of Massachusetts Judge Vieri Volterra's decision to reject early dismissal is likely.

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