The Importance of Trademarks for Churches

Your ministry’s goodwill and reputation are on the line.

Once strictly a concern of businesses, “branding” is just as important today for nonprofits, including churches. Although churches and ministries typically do not market products and services in the same way as businesses, they still rely on their names, logos, slogans, and other trademarks to express their identities and convey messages to the public.

Every organization, including churches (whether they know it or not) has a brand. The word “brand” has many definitions, but generally includes the public identity that signifies the ideas and values setting an organization apart from others. Trademarks—including names, logos, and slogans—encapsulate an organization’s brand.

A “brand” is the public identity represented by a name, logo, or other identifier. A “trademark” is a legal term for the intellectual property by which a brand is represented. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably. Trademarks include not only organizational names, but also:

Logos and designs;
Slogans and jingles;
Program names;
Names of publications, such as newsletters;
Names of educational materials, such as a DVD series or a series of Bible study guides; and,
Anything that identifies a product or service—even colors and smells.

Although church trademarks may never be known as well as corporate brands like Apple or Google, they nevertheless serve equally important purposes for their constituencies—and therefore often merit protection.

Quick identification

A trademark of a business, commercial product, or service helps consumers identify and remember certain characteristics of the product or service. When parents of children see large golden arches, for example, they immediately know (or at least their children know) that Happy Meals are nearby. Within the nonprofit sector, trademarks similarly help the public to know the quality of services, the caliber of programs, the values of the organization, and the credibility of information.

Although the association of brands with ministry services may not be as obvious, people certainly do rely on brands in ministry, too. For instance, denominational names are brands that allow churchgoers to know many important aspects of a church without even stepping into a church building. By knowing that a particular church belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America or the Assemblies of God, churchgoers familiar with the denominations can generally know certain features of the member churches, such as:

Biblical values;
Church governance and polity;
Worship style; and,
Other congregational distinctives.

In other words, trademarks can serve as a valuable shortcut for the public to know important distinctives about a church or ministry, without having to rely solely on individual and local research.

Goodwill and reputation

As a mission-driven organization, a church’s goodwill and reputation are crucial to its ministry. A church relies on its goodwill and reputation for success in advancing its message, attracting congregants, and fulfilling its missionary purpose. Such goodwill and reputation, which can take years of effort and investment to establish, are encapsulated in the church’s trademarks.

Traditionally, churches used fairly descriptive names like “First Baptist Church.” Names like these immediately tell the public some relevant information about the church; in the case of First Baptist Church, it tells us it belongs to a Baptist denomination and was likely the first church of that denomination established in its city.

But descriptive names do not evoke much emotion or imagery. Today, a growing number of churches are opting for more distinctive names. Names like “Vineyard” and “Calvary Chapel” are capable of transcending locality and generating greater emotional connection and significance than more traditional names. Other churches adopt names from the geographic location they are in, such as “Willow Creek” and “Saddleback.” Although geographic names might not initially have much emotional significance, over time, as the church brand expands, such names can become richly laden with meaning far beyond the original geographic meaning. In gaining secondary meaning, even geographic or other descriptive names may be deemed to have acquired trademark distinctiveness. Some distinctive church names have become iconic brands within the Christian world.

Descriptive names are generally deemed to be “weak” trademarks and are more difficult to protect, while distinctive names are generally deemed to be “stronger” trademarks and are easier to protect. Typically, the more distinctive the name, the more easily the public recognizes the name as a brand that identifies a specific source of goods or services. Both for-profits and nonprofits have gravitated toward more distinctive names in recent years to better stand out from the crowd. Because there is such a wide diversity of churches in the United States, adopting more distinctive names makes it easier for a church to distinguish itself and to be recognizable for its doctrine, polity, teachings, worship style, and so on.

Why protect church trademarks?

Given the increasing numbers of churches and church affiliations in the United States, it can be difficult to create new distinctive names that are not already in use. If churches wish to maintain the distinctiveness of their names, they need to take steps to protect their names and other trademarks for a variety of purposes. Here are four reasons why:

1. Adequate trademark protection prevents public confusion. Without trademark protection, other organizations may intentionally, or unintentionally, use a name similar to yours, either in church name, church ministry, or program. This can lead to public confusion. Trademark protection allows churches to prevent others from copying or unintentionally adopting similar names and creating confusion. Public confusion may result in seekers driving to the wrong location, purchasing unintended music, downloading someone else’s sermons, or worse, people finding a different ministry that espouses teachings contrary to yours.

Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, had used its name since 1996. Several years later, a former branch campus of Western Seminary, also in Seattle, became independent and adopted the name Mars Hill Graduate School. For years, the church and the school experienced much public confusion. Many people incorrectly assumed that the school was affiliated with the church. Finally, in 2011, after enduring a decade of confusion—which was sometimes more than nominal—the school changed its name.

The church then also discovered a church in Sacramento, California, that used not only the same name, Mars Hill Church, but also a very similar logo. Fortunately for the Seattle church, because it had senior trademark rights, it was able to persuade the California church to change its name, though only after an unfortunate public dispute. The Seattle church finally registered its name as a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2012. If Mars Hill had registered its name as a trademark back in the 1990s, soon after adopting its name, it would have been able to avoid, or at least minimize, these instances of public confusion and disputes.

2. Trademark protection can prevent deliberate tarnishment of a church’s name. Often, Christian ministries have detractors who deliberately seek to tarnish the ministry’s name. For example, in 1997, an individual opposed to the group Jews for Jesus set up a website using the “Jews for Jesus” name, deliberately trying to draw people away from Jews for Jesus. This “bait website” lured viewers to another website that attempted to show people “how the Jews for Jesus cult is founded upon deceit and distortion of fact.” Because Jews for Jesus had federally registered its trademark, Jews for Jesus was able to enforce its federal protections and successfully stop the infringer from continuing to tarnish its organizational name.

3. Trademarks enable a ministry or church network to maintain doctrinal integrity. The public tends to assess the quality of ministry services and the credibility of teachings from an organization based on its reputation, which is directly linked to the strength and integrity of its brand. Think of your brand as the hull of your ministry: it carries the precious cargo of goodwill and public reputation. Trademark registration fortifies the hull. Trademark maintenance removes rust and barnacles. Thus, a practice of proper trademark and intellectual property protection helps build and guard one of your ministry’s most valuable assets—its goodwill.

In the Christian community, people need to know whether a church or ministry’s underlying teachings and foundational values are trustworthy. Trademarks help the public associate a church, church association, or network, with certain beliefs. Failure to protect the ministry’s name can lead to disputes about the right to use the name. If a trademark is properly protected, a church association can compel an individual church whose teachings stray from the association’s core beliefs to cease using the association’s name.

For instance, after a theological dispute in 2006, a disgruntled member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church founded his own church under the name, “A Creation Seventh Day & Adventist Church.” He held church services under this name in a gas station, espousing teachings that were clearly contrary to those of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Because the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had earlier registered the SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST trademark, it could enforce its rights under federal trademark law, and stop the dissident member from using his confusingly similar church name. The dissident member argued that the phrase was a generic term referring to a type of religious belief, but in 2010, a Tennessee court found that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had properly used and protected the name as a trademark, and enjoined the dissident member from further use of his infringing church name.

4. Protect against rogue affiliates. Unlike subsidiaries of businesses, individual churches within a church network are usually legally independent entities. Without ultimate governance control, a church network typically controls individual church use of a network name through licenses and trademark enforcement. When permitting individual churches to use a church trademark, the parent organization should require a written license agreement that spells out the terms and conditions under which an individual church can use the mark and, importantly, the terms under which the parent entity can terminate the license. Such an agreement is a crucial means of preserving the integrity of a mark in the event of a dispute with the affiliate.

It is not uncommon for such affiliates to “go rogue” when, over time, the parties diverge in their priorities and missions. If an affiliate engages in activities contrary to the mission or policies of the parent group, revoking permission to use the mark may be the best, and possibly only, means of preventing the rogue group from further tarnishing the reputation of the parent organization.

Think globally

In conjunction with licensing marks to foreign affiliates, a U.S. organization should also evaluate the costs and benefits of registering its marks in such affiliates’ countries. Because trademarks are only protected on a country-by-country basis, a U.S. entity may not be able to enforce its marks against misuse by foreign affiliates unless its marks are registered in the affiliate’s country.

A legal guardrail

Some people might feel that enforcing church trademark is overly aggressive. This is like complaining that the guardrail at a hairpin turn on a switchback mountain highway was “overly firm” and damaged your vehicle when it seemed to be taking a shortcut down the mountain. Trademark registration and maintenance is the legally provided guardrail at particularly vulnerable junctures in an organization’s growth and journey. Enforcement of those registered rights is the protective rigidity in that guardrail. Ignoring enforcement of its legal trademark protections, even for modest or benign encounters, weakens the guardrail for subsequent and more damaging infringers.

Churches can and should be civil, polite, and appropriately calibrated in their response to innocent and/or benign infringers. But failure to protect and enforce their trademark rights can lead to the confusion of potential and non-insider constituencies, and may even lead to a situation in which your church’s name is now shared with an organization whose views appear to be heretical to your church’s mission and values. Trademark laws enable churches to protect the integrity of their teachings.

An ounce of prevention

Churches and other nonprofits often overlook the importance of trademark protection until a problem arises. The most cost-effective time to properly protect a nonprofit’s brand is in the early stages of creating a new name, or launching a new program, or service. Yet, even if your church or ministry has operated for decades without affirmatively protecting one of your organization’s most valuable assets, it is always timely to consider protecting this valuable asset. Taking steps now, before a challenge or conflict arises, is the best time to protect your church’s brands and to help ensure the integrity of its goodwill, reputation, and long-term success.

Kenneth E. Liu is an attorney with Gammon & Grange, P.C.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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