U.S. Supreme Court denies Philadelphia Church of God's petition for hearing
By Bill Stough
LONEDELL, Mo.--The Philadelphia Church of God (PCG), headquartered in Edmond, Okla., has apparently lost its battle to distribute without permission copies of Mystery of the Ages, the book Worldwide Church of God (WCG) founder Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in 1985, a few months before his death, on Jan. 16, 1986.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided April 2 to let stand a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California regarding Mystery of the Ages. The appeals court had decided that the WCG as copyright owner could block the PCG's unauthorized printing and distribution of the work.
The high court made no comment about the case or its merits when it denied the PCG's petition. The PCG is under injunction to cease printing and distributing the book.
The recent events are reported in the April 4 edition of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
The WSJ had devoted front-page space to the case in its Feb. 21 issue. That article also appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God, along with related articles on the Worldwide-Philadelphia dispute.
What happens now?
The Journal spoke with WCG attorney Ralph Helge and legal assistant Earle Reese, who work in the legal department at church headquarters in Pasadena, Calif.
"This is the end of PCG's ability to appeal to a higher court," said Mr. Reese. "All legal action will now be in the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California in Los Angeles, where the case began."
Such action, said Mr. Reese, will be limited to assessing damages and the issuing of a permanent injunction against the Oklahoma-based church. "If the summary judgment is denied, this could set the whole process of trial and appeal going again," Mr. Helge told The Journal.
Judge Spencer Letts of the Los Angeles court, who recently assumed "senior status," similar to retirement, decided in favor of the PCG two years ago.
But the appeals court overturned his decision. Now Judge Letts' court, presided over by Judge Christina Snyder, must enforce the appeals court's ruling.
The PCG filed a countersuit in March 1997 after the WCG sued to stop the PCG's printing and distribution of Mystery of the Ages. The PCG was seeking a "declaratory judgment" to allow it to print a total of 19 works by Mr. Armstrong, including Mystery of the Ages, for which the WCG held the copyright.
Although the countersuit named only 19 works, the WCG's legal department says the petition amounted to a request to publish 75 copyrighted works because the WCG considers each lesson of a 58-lesson correspondence course to be a separate publication. (See the boxed article on this page for a list of the disputed works.)
May 7 motion
The PCG has reportedly filed a motion to amend its countercomplaint under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That motion will be heard May 7.
The WCG as well has filed a motion, for "summary judgment" to be heard in the same court on the same day, said Mr. Reese.
In a summary judgment, the judge can make a decision without hearing from witnesses or having a full trial if much of the case has already been decided in previous rulings.
The WCG contends that the Mystery of the Ages decision also applies to the other works the PCG says it should have a right to publish.
If the district court issues a summary judgment in favor of the WCG, that could be the end of the case other than for collection of fees and damages and the entering of a permanent injunction.
Mr. Reese says he is not sure how the May 7 proceeding will turn out. He thinks the laws and decisions favor the WCG, but he acknowledges that courts can be unpredictable.
"You don't know till you get in there," he said.
The PCG comments
The Journal asked the PCG for its side of the story. Church official Dennis Leap returned a telephone call from his office in Oklahoma and talked with this Journal writer.
Rather than commenting on the court case and its merits, Mr. Leap criticized this newspaper.
"We are not eager to contribute to The Journal," he said. "The Journal has done very damaging articles about Herbert W. Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong warned against people like you who write for The Journal."
Mr. Leap said he especially doesn't like the "dirty laundry" of the Churches of God that he thinks appears in some Journal articles.
He contrasted The Journal: News of the Churches of God with The Wall Street Journal and its recent coverage of the WCG-PCG legal proceedings.
"The Wall Street Journal was very good to the Philadelphia Church of God in its [Feb. 21] article," he said. "It was good advertising for the Philadelphia Church of God."
Mr. Leap said he wasn't trying to offend The Journal, but "we don't agree with your philosophy. The PCG got a much more fair representation in The Wall Street Journal. It was very fair to us."
Then Mr. Leap asked if the Worldwide Church of God controls what The Journal publishes.
This writer replied to Mr. Leap that the WCG does not control The Journal and that this writer is not a WCG member. He informed Mr. Leap that the PCG is free to respond to any allegation or statement of supposed fact by the WCG but has apparently chosen not to do that.
"You're no better or worse than a worldly newspaper," countered Mr. Leap. "You are printing the lies that the WCG tells about us."
This writer again reiterated to Mr. Leap that The Journal is willing and even eager to print the PCG's as well as the WCG's side of the story.
"Would Christ allow the printing of two points of view?" asked Mr. Leap. "Bill, there is something wrong with your religion."
Mr. Leap said the PCG is "not necessarily closing the door to The Journal forever, but we are not going to discuss the Mystery of the Ages case."
He again referred to the "philosophical differences" between The Journal and the PCG.
The Journal, he said, "is breaking God's law by publishing the articles its publishes."
Mr. Flurry prophesies
The Journal did find some comments on the case by the PCG's pastor general, Gerald Flurry. In his column in the March-April issue of the church's Philadelphia Trumpet magazine, Mr. Flurry said his church's chances of prevailing in the courts are "less than . . . 1 percent."
However, he wrote, "I prophesy to you that one way or the other God will provide a way for us to mail that book again" (emphasis in original).
Fees and damages
The Journal asked Mr. Reese, of the WCG legal department, about fees and damages. What would the WCG collect if the court rules that only the WCG's attorneys' fees could be collected but no damages, since it might be difficult to prove any monetary harm to the WCG resulted from the PCG's publishing efforts.
The attorneys' fees by themselves could amount to "hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. But he thinks the court will award "some damages," and the question of damages could even end up in another trial.
"Fees for that trial would then also have to be paid," he said.
What happens if the WCG cannot afford to continue its fight?
"That may be what the PCG is hoping for," he said, "but they are being drained by all this legal action too."
Mr. Reese said the WCG's board of directors plans to meet soon to discuss the licensing or sale of all the copyrights the church owns.
The copyright law in the United States says that before Jan. 1, 1978, a copyright lasted 28 years, with another renewal possible for 28 more years.
After Jan. 1, 1978, the law was changed so that a copyright now lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years. This means Mystery of the Ages will not enter the public domain until 2036.
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