A federal appeals court ruled that a website that used a national church’s registered trademarks without permission violated federal trademark law.

Church Law and Tax2002-09-01


Key point 6-05. A church name is a valuable property right that is protected by the legal principle of unfair competition. Protection also is available under federal trademark law.

Church Names

* A federal appeals court ruled that a website that used a national church’s registered trademarks without permission violated federal trademark law. Founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1872, The First Church of Christ, Scientist (the “Church”), is a Boston-based religious organization with branches located throughout the world. The Church is governed by its Board of Directors (the “Board”), whose functions include supervision and control over the church’s publishing enterprise, The Christian Science Publishing Society. In furtherance of its religious mission, the Church provides a variety of products and publications, many of which bear federally registered and common law trademarks owned by the Board. In 1999, a resident of Arizona (“Bob”) founded the University of Christian Science (“UCS”) as an “electronic campus on the world wide web” which would allow present and potential Christian Scientists to “study the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy and to exchange ideas about Christian Science.” Lacking the technical expertise necessary to create and maintain a website, Bob obtained the assistance of Rob, a resident of North Carolina. Rob secured a domain name for UCS and posted the files provided to him by Bob on the newly created site. Thus, while Bob was solely responsible for drafting and making judgments regarding the content of the UCS website, it was Rob who physically created and maintained the site from his North Carolina residence. Later that year, the Church filed a trademark infringement suit in a federal court in North Carolina against Bob, Rob, and USC. Specifically, the Church alleged that Bob and UCS without permission used certain marks belonging to the Church, or marks “confusingly similar thereto,” in printed materials and on the UCS website. The Church also alleged that Bob and UCS “have held themselves out as being affiliated with or sponsored by” the Church. The Church claimed that Bob and UCS included the terms “Church of Christ, Scientist” and “Board of Education of the Church of Christ, Scientist” in the content of the website and printed materials, knowing and intending that the use of such terms would likely cause confusion, and would mislead the public into believing that their products and services “emanate from, are approved, authorized or sponsored by, or are in some way associated with” the Church.

The Church was unsuccessful in serving its complaint directly upon Bob through certified mail, or by employing a “process server.” As a result, it filed notice of the lawsuit in a local newspaper serving Bob’s last known place of residence. Bob failed to answer the complaint, and so the court entered a “default judgment” against him. The judgment concluded that Bob, and UCS, had infringed certain of the Church’s registered trademarks, in violation of federal law, and it permanently enjoined Bob and UCS from using those marks. Bob and UCS later appealed this judgment. They insisted that they had not violated federal trademark law because (1) they did not use any of the protected marks “in connection with the sale … distribution or advertising of any goods or services,” and (2) the website involved constitutionally protected speech. The appeals court was not persuaded, and upheld the trial court’s judgment finding that both Bob and UCS violated the Church’s trademarks through their website. It also concluded that the federal trial court in North Carolina had jurisdiction over Bob, even though he resided in a different state.

Application. Many national churches, and some local churches, use trademarks that are registered with the United States Patent & Trademark Office. This case demonstrates that those who use legally protected trademarks on a website, without permission from the trademark owner, may be prohibited by a court from doing so if (1) the website purports to be “affiliated” with the trademark owner, or (2) use of the trademark on the website will likely cause confusion and mislead the public into believing that products and services identified on the website “emanate from, are approved, authorized or sponsored by, or are in some way associated with” the trademark owner. Christian Science Board of Directors of the First Church of Christ, Scientist v. Nolan, 259 F.3d 209 (4th Cir. 2001).

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