2 Seventh Day Adventist Organizations Bring Trademark Infringement Lawsuit Against Breakaway Church

August 12th, 2010

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a defendants’ motion dismiss various trademark infringement claims brought against him by two Seventh Day Adventist organizations. Suit was brought by General Conference Corporation of Seventh-Day Adventists and General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists (Plaintiffs/Adventists) against Walter McGill (Defendant), after McGill broke off from the Seventh Day Adventist Church congregation and began his own congregation (apparently of which there are only 3 members) under the name Creation 7th Day Adventist Church.

trademark infringement attorneysOriginally Adventists brought a trademark infringement lawsuit against McGill in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Jackson for his use of protected marks belonging to Adventists in advertising and promoting his breakaway church. In response, McGill brought a motion to dismiss based on the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was denied by the district court. Subsequently, and after McGill’s repeated refusal to appear for a court-ordered mediation to which he had initially consented, the district court entered default judgment against him and granted partial summary judgment in favor of Adventists.

The full Sixth Circuit opinion for this case can be found here (General Conference Corp. et al. v. McGill, No. 09-5723 (6th cir. August 10, 2010)).

In entering its order finding trademark infringement, the district court made reference to the following list of factors that should be considered in determining whether a third-party’s use of a trademark will cause a  likelihood of confusion among the public (finding the majority of factors heavily in favor of Adventists);

1) the strength of the senior mark;
2) relatedness of the goods and services;
3) the similarity of the marks;
4) evidence of actual confusion;
5) the marketing channels used;
6) likely degree of purchaser care;
7) the intent of the defendant in selecting the mark; and
8 ) the likelihood of expansion of the product lines.” Id. at 19

McGill then instituted this appeal in the Sixth Circuit asking the court to: carve out a new exception under trademark law for disputes involving religious use of intellectual religious property, find that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies only in suits against the government, find the ‘Seventh Day Adventist’ trademark invalid, or otherwise find that the mark is unlikely to cause confusion among the public because the district court misjudged the above factors based on the identity of the relevant public.

However, McGill’s requests were roundly declined by the court of appeals. The three Circuit Judge panel, comprised of Kennedy, Moore, and Sutton, denied McGill’s request to overrule the district court’s decision and instead affirmed the district court’s finding of partial summary judgment in favor of Adventists.

Writing the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore affirmed the district courts finding that McGill’s use of the ‘Seventh Day Adventist Church’ trademark would lead to a likelihood of confusion, she stated;

“Even taking the relevant public as “Christians and, more specifically, Adventist Christians (that is, those who believe in the nearness of the second coming of Christ),” Stocker, 1996 WL 427638, at *11, 17, McGill has adduced insufficient evidence to show that this group would understand “Seventh-day Adventist” as referring to certain religious beliefs rather than to the plaintiffs’ church.” Id. at 19

Concluding, the Sixth Circuit addressed relatedness between the marks and likelihood of confusion before affirming the district court’s judgment;

“We address McGill’s main challenge to the district court’s analysis, that it misjudged the factors in light of the identity of the relevant public. McGill argues that the relevant public—those who believe in the imminence of Christ’s return and that the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday—are so discerning that there is a genuine issue of material fact about the likelihood that they would confuse McGill’s church for the plaintiffs’ church. But while it may indeed be hard to envision a person mistakenly joining the wrong church, it is not at all difficult to imagine a person consuming McGill’s published materials and ascribing his teachings to the General Conference, especially in light of the relatedness of the parties’ services and similarity of the marks. Accordingly, we agree that the plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment on the likelihood of confusion, and we uphold the district court’s judgment as to the mark “Seventh-day Adventist.” Id. at 20

For more information on this case and related trademark-infringement lawsuits;