Massachusetts High Court Hears Church Suit

The highest court in Massachusetts this week took up the question: To what degree and under what circumstances can a court intervene in church affairs?

It's an issue raised by a suit brought by two Christian Science Church members against current and former officials of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston.

Where to draw the line separating religion from government - particularly when a case concerns internal church matters - is a recurring question that regularly lands in courts at all levels, First Amendment scholars say.

The question has become even more urgent, in light of an increasing number of financial disputes within churches and court challenges to religious bodies, say some religious leaders. On Tuesday, for example, the state's Supreme Judicial Court also heard arguments in a property and governance dispute between the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and a local church.

"There is a persistent, low-level strain of cases of this sort," says Georgetown University law professor Mark Tushnet.

Before a courtroom so packed that the windows were flung open to let in the wintery fresh air, the seven justices for 42 minutes heard arguments and quizzed attorneys in the Christian Science case, which involves The Mother Church in Boston. At issue is whether legal justification exists for the case to forward. In earlier decisions, two judges ruled that the case should be tried. A decision on this week's appeal is not expected for several months.

The suit was filed in December 1993 by Elizabeth Weaver of Glen Arbor, Mich., and Roy Varner of Houston. They charge that 14 current and former church officers mismanaged as much as $450 million between 1988 and 1992. During that period, the church expanded its publishing activities, including The Christian Science Monitor, into radio and television. They also claim that the church officials overlooked or disregarded certain bylaws, contained in the "Manual of The Mother Church" by church founder Mary Baker Eddy, that they say would have provided a check on the officials' financial decisions during the expansion.

The defendants, however, say that they fully complied with all church bylaws and that the church always maintained a net worth in excess of $100 million. They also reject the plaintiffs' assertion that the "Manual of The Mother Church" gives the finance committee the power to influence decisions or remove members of the board of directors.

Steve Shapiro, an attorney for the church officials, argued Tuesday that the case should not go forward because Ms. Weaver and Mr. Varner were not affected by the officials' decisions any more than any other church member. The Christian Science Church has members in more than 70 countries. To allow the plaintiffs' case to go forward, he said, could expose the church to an unmanageable number of suits.

The defense also argued that a trial would involve the state in church decisions, a situation the defendants say would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment. "The ability of a church to govern its own affairs is absolutely essential to religious freedom," Mr. Shapiro said.

Cerise Lim-Epstein, arguing for the plaintiffs, said that to cite the First Amendment is to misconstrue the nature of the case. Plaintiffs are asking the courts to step in, she said, to correct an infraction of a fiscal nature, not one involving faith or theology. Moreover, they are asking the courts to enforce compliance of church bylaws, not reinterpret them. "We want to have our directors go back and follow the bylaws, not change the rules of the church," Ms. Lim-Epstein said.

She also asserted that legal precedent exists for church members to sue over the decisions church officials make. In addition, she said, Christian Science Church members have a unique relationship to the Massachusetts court system. Mrs. Eddy filed two of the religion's guiding documents with Boston's Suffolk County Registry of Deeds when creating the church.

The justices took visible interest in the case, peppering Shapiro with nine questions and Lim-Epstein with 20. Of Lim-Epstein, justices asked, Why are members of the finance committee not plaintiffs in the suit if their powers were those allegedly usurped? What do the plaintiffs hope to gain by suing? Are plaintiffs asking for continual court supervision of the board of directors?

Shapiro was asked, What is a member of The Mother Church? Would the state attorney general have legal standing in this case? Is The Christian Science Monitor empty of church content? In response to that question, Shapiro said, "This court has twice held that the Monitor is part of the spiritual mission of this church."

Plaintiffs assert the court can investigate the spending practices of the church because the radio and television expansion was essentially a secular activity.

Eighteen churches of other denominations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the defendants. The Rev. Diane Kessler of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, one of the organizations that filed a brief, says so many religious groups took action because they are concerned that government is encroaching on religious freedoms.

"In some ways the particulars of cases are less relevant than the principles involved," she says.

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