A U.S. District Court judge here last week overturned an unusual private copyright law passed by Congress 14 years ago that gave the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the monopoly on all editions of the church's manual, "Science and Health," long after all but one version of the book had passed into the public domain.
Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson revoked the copyright on the 1906 or so-called "final edition" of "Science and Health," which the congressional action had assigned to the church until the year 2046. But the judge stayed his action pending appeal by Christian Science leaders.
The copyright dispute goes back to 1971, when Nixon White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, joined in some quiet but intensive lobbying to secure passage of Private Law 92-60. That bill in effect canonized the 1906 edition by blocking publication of any other version, before or after that date.
Beginning in 1875, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote numerous editions of "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures."
Together with the Bible, "Science and Health" functions as the "pastor" of Christian Science churches, since Sunday sermons are made up of selected readings from the Bible and "Science and Health."
Each week's message is published in the Christian Science Quarterly so that church members may study it before the Sunday service.
Copyrights on all editions of "Science and Health" except the 1906 version had expired before Congress enacted the private law restricting rights to that edition to the church.
In April, a dissident group called United Christian Scientists sued, charging that the 1971 private law violated the "religious free exercise" of the group's reported 16,000 members by restricting distribution of Eddy's writings.
The group also raised the constitutional issue, charging that the private law involved illegal government entanglement with church affairs.
After studying the arguments that prompted the 1971 private law, Judge Jackson agreed, noting, "Such proceedings have the sound of the 17th century to them."
He cited particularly the testimony of one church witness at the time who argued, " 'We have got to protect religion, we have got to protect what God wants His children to hear.' "
The judge's decision also cited the Senate committee report recommending adoption of the copyright extension, which said the law was necessary "to preserve and maintain the purity and integrity of the statement of the religious teachings of this denomination, and thereby to protect members of the public against the possibility that in purchasing or otherwise acquiring "Science and Health" they might receive a distorted version of the teachings of Christian Science."
Such arguments, Jackson noted in his decision, "are resonant of what might have occurred before the 17th century Committee on Religion of the last Parliament to sit before the English Revolution, but they are discordant in the context of contemporary American political debate.
"Heresy is no part of the business entrusted to Congress by the Constitution."
Jackson cited the three-part test established by the Supreme Court in a 1971 case involving aid to parochial schools, which has become a classic in church-state conflicts:
"First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits relgion . . . the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.' "
The 1971 private law granting extraordinary concessions to the Christian Science Church failed all three tests, Jackson ruled.
The law "was openly sought and passed to secure prospective advantage for the hierocracy of one particular religion and to no discernible advancement of the general welfare," he wrote in his decision.
In his decision, Jackson noted that the Bar Association of the City of New York had argued "in no uncertain terms" the unconstitutionality of the 1971 law before its passage.
Former New York senator Jacob Javits was one of only two senators to raise serious objections to the bill. He was pressured by Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who were subsequently imprisoned for their part in the Watergate cover-up, to remove the legislative hold he had put on the bill.
David James Nolan of Hilo, Hawaii, chairman of United Christian Scientists, hailed Jackson's decision. He said his group wants to distribute audio tapes and video cassettes of Baker's writings.