It is only a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood with hand-painted lettering on a rainbow background.
The board hangs in Kona, Hawaii, outside a small rented hall where a few souls quietly worship God each Saturday morning.
But the sign contains a forbidden name, and a legal battle over its use has stirred a tsunami of church reaction on the mainland. The case is now pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
“What we are faced with is a Goliath vs. David situation,” said a defendant in the unusual lawsuit, which pits the 5.5-million-member Seventh-day Adventist Church against an 11-member splinter congregation.
“The real issue is forcing us to change our name, not allowing any use of the words ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ because it is a registered trade name,” Lily Anne Deniz, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church of Kona, wrote in an unorthodox court defense for the tiny group.
A lawyer for the church corporation said that a trademark is a property right and the Kona congregation is not entitled to the church’s “good name” because its members no longer subscribe to the denominational form of government and discipline.
Attorney Richard Johns said the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not want to be cast in the bully role of “a Goliath-and-David situation.” But, he said, “the church believes ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ is a unique name that needs to be protected.”
Until a court ultimately decides who is right, the little Kona congregation is being fined $500 a day and its pastor, John R. Marik, is in hiding to avoid jail. The federal district court in Hawaii issued a warrant for Marik’s arrest and found him and his flock in contempt last May when they refused to take down the sign, “Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church,” and to stop using “Seventh-day Adventist” and “SDA” in church correspondence and promotion.
At least six independent Adventist publications are churning out material supporting the Kona congregation. And protesters have organized a petition drive demanding that the denominational headquarters drop the litigation, which could easily cost $100,000 from church members’ tithes.
About the only thing both sides agree on is that around 1860 the church’s prophet, Ellen G. White, mandated “Seventh-day Adventist” as the “God-given name” to identify the faithful until the second coming of Jesus Christ. The two basic distinctives of Seventh-day Adventism are belief that the Sabbath should be observed on the seventh day of the week, and that Jesus will return to Earth soon.
In 1981, the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference registered the words “Seventh-day Adventist” as a trade name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Although common in the commercial world, it is unusual for churches and religious organizations to seek trademarks. Court documents involving disputes over church trademarks are few and far between, according to attorneys familiar with church-state litigation.
The Kona case had its genesis in 1980 when Marik, a Seventh-day Adventist intern minister, began relating “dreams and visions,” which he said came from God, to his congregation during worship services.
Drew Some Objections
Local church authorities “frowned on that,” Marik said in a telephone conversation from California, where he is holing up until the case is resolved.
The following July, Marik was fired for “insubordination.” He and his mother, wife and daughter, along with a handful of followers, formed a separate congregation and rented a $765-a-month suite on the second floor of a corrugated metal industrial building near Kailua Bay.
Church officials issued repeated--and unheeded--warnings to Marik to stop using the name “Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church” because of the trademark. Finally, the denomination filed suit on April 9, 1987. Marik, who has no legal training, a month later filed a rambling paper defending himself and the church. Marik’s congregation did not secure legal counsel until after the Hawaii District Court handed down a judgment and injunction against it on Dec. 8, 1987.
Essentially, Marik argued that the Bible forbids Christians to use secular courts to settle differences, citing I Corinthians 6:1-8, and that adding the word “Congregational” to the title of his church sets it apart from congregations affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference, headquartered in Takoma Park, Md.
Consider It Generic
Additionally, Marik and Max Corbett, a Seventh-day Adventist lawyer in Houston who has taken Marik’s case without fee, claim that Seventh-day Adventist is a generic name in the same way they consider the names Methodist, Baptist or Catholic to be and therefore not a valid trademark. They also maintain that since the Kona congregation does not market anything, it is not subject to trademark regulation anyway; the name is used on the church sign only to note the place of worship and invite the public.
Marik’s cause was soon dramatized and championed by independent-minded and dissident Adventists around the world.
“The little group . . . that calls themselves ‘Seventh-day Adventist Congregationalists’ have a truly distinctive name,” said Vance Ferrell, editor of Pilgrim’s Rest, a newsletter published in Beersheba Springs, Tenn. “Why should our leadership . . . try to sue 11 little folk in a tiny church on the Kona Coast?”
Then Ferrell, who sends out packets of more than a thousand pages of court testimony and other papers detailing the case to anyone who is interested, answered his own question:
“It is not the numbers but the legal precedent that counts: By winning a lawsuit against 11 people on a far-off island, a precedent will have been established in the court systems of America. . . . “
Corbett, Marik’s twangy-voiced Texas attorney, said: “This has stirred up one of the hottest ruckuses I’ve ever seen. . . . It’s a suit of tremendous import, for if the judgment is not overturned on appeal, it will open the door for mass persecution of one’s religion, be it . . . Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu.”
Other church groups are indeed watching nervously.
Three Davidian Seventh-day Adventist groups--they have differed with the General Conference over doctrinal matters since the 1930s--have filed a friend of the court brief backing Marik. None has been sued by the General Conference so far, but a Southern California-based homosexual group called Seventh-day Adventist Kinship, International, with 600 members in chapters around the nation, is locked in a federal court fight with the General Conference over its name. That case is expected to be tried in Los Angeles in February.
Two other small groups, a black congregation in Alabama and a Samoan congregation in Southern California, settled out of court after the denomination sued and pressured them into not using the name “Seventh-day Adventist.”
Not Looking for Cases
The denomination’s trademark committee “doesn’t go out beating the bushes looking for cases,” said Thomas Wetmore, the church corporation’s associate general counsel. Of 40 that have been considered, only four have gone to court and only the Kona and Kinship cases remain unsettled, he said.
Nevertheless, Peter Fowler, a San Francisco attorney who wrote the friend of the court brief for the Davidian groups, voiced the heart of the dissidents’ concern:
Applying trademark laws to the Seventh-day Adventist Congregational Church’s activities, he said, “fails to pass constitutional muster since it strikes at the very essence of the religious enterprise, namely, the expression and communication of one’s religious beliefs by means of clearly protected First Amendment activities such as speech, press and distribution of religious literature.”
Fowler thinks the true dispute is over who is a Seventh-day Adventist: “Who is entitled to use the name in connection with their religious beliefs and ministry?”
To decide that, he said, “would require the civil courts to engage in the forbidden process of interpreting and weighing church doctrine.”
Earlier Case Cited
Fowler and Corbett cite a 1987 case in which a group disassociated itself from the First Church of Christ, Scientist--the so-called mother church in Boston--to form the “Independent Christian Science Church of Plainfield, N.J.”
Even though the denominational body had trademarked the names “Christian Science” and “Church of Christ, Scientist,” the New Jersey Supreme Court held that “ ‘Christian Science Churches’ is a generic name for churches in which Christian Science is practiced . . . and not entitled to trademark status.”
Lawyers for the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference, however, insist that neutral principles of law can be applied in all property disputes without violating freedom of religion and speech protected by the First Amendment.
In papers filed with the appeals court in San Francisco, these lawyers point to a 1944 case in which seceding members of the “Methodist Episcopal Church, South” were not allowed to continue using that name to describe themselves.
Good Will Issue
“Men have the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience; but they have no right in doing so to make use of a name which will enable them to appropriate the good will which has been built up by an organization with which they are no longer connected,” wrote the judge (U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals; Purcell vs. Summers).
General Conference attorneys said that they have tried to reach a compromise with Marik, suggesting that his church could use either “Seventh-day” or “Adventist” as part of its name--but not both.
“If they would simply remove the sign and not use the name, we’d settle and waive damages,” said lawyer Johns, who represented the General Conference in early stages of the case.
Marik firmly refuses to do that.
“If we were to call ourselves by some other name, wouldn’t . . . that be concealing our true identity and . . . who we truthfully claim to be?” he asks.