Can The Episcopal Church Save Its Name?

I am both an Episcopalian and a trademark attorney.  Frankly, I never thought that there would be much of a connection between the two.

However, trademark law is at the crux of the federal lawsuit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, filed in South Carolina federal district court, Case Number 2:13-cv-587-CWH, with a reported appellate opinion at 849 F. 3d 163 (4th Cir. 2017).

In its February 21, 2017 reported opinion, the Fourth Circuit addressed a procedural aspect of the case, namely whether an existing separate South Carolina state action and the federal action are “parallel,” or not, which in turn determines whether the federal suit may proceed at this juncture.  Suffice it to say that the matter is presently in one heck of a procedural vortex.

What is captivating, in more general terms, is the focus on trademark law and the implications for the “Episcopal” name and “brand,“ as outlined in the federal complaint.

The federal suit was originally brought by Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg, who was appointed by The Episcopal Church, against Bishop Mark Lawrence, who has led a disaffected South Carolina out of The Episcopal Church that calls itself the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina.”  The PECDSC joined the global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in 2013.

The amended complaint in the federal suit, filed on March 27, 2017, alleges Lanham Act violations that are rooted in basic federal trademark law.  For example, specific allegations from the complaint include the following:

 “The Episcopal Church” is a national brand that is well known by the general public in every state in the country, particularly by consumers of religious services.

The Episcopal Church owns and controls its national brand. The Episcopal Church owns and controls a proliferation of federal trademark registrations that include various uses of the dominant word “Episcopal” in connection with religious services, including the following federal trademark registrations: … Mark: “The Episcopal Church” Reg. No: 3,195,455R, Reg. Date: January 9, 2007; Goods and Services: Religious services, namely, ministerial, evangelical, and missionary services.…

The Episcopal Church’s rights under its federal trademark registrations and the common law include the right to prevent the unauthorized use of confusingly similar marks in connection with confusingly similar services.

The Episcopal Church authorizes its dioceses, bishops, clergy, parishes, and parishioners to use its national brand, its marks, and related or similar marks, to advertise their authority in and/or affiliation with The Episcopal Church and with each other, and that the nature and quality of their services are consistent with those prescribed and sanctioned by The Episcopal Church.

In terms of relief, the Plaintiffs have asked the Court, in part, to “immediately and permanently enjoin Bishop Lawrence and those acting under his direction and control and all others acting in concert and participation with him from…representing by any means whatsoever, directly or indirectly, that Bishop Lawrence is affiliated with or connected to The Episcopal Church or its diocese in South Carolina.”

It would seem to go with without saying that these cases may have tremendous national implications for The Episcopal Church that transcend the dispute in South Carolina.

As an Episcopalian, my hope certainly is that the governing body of The Episcopal Church (The General Convention), if it has not done so already, becomes actively involved in the trademark aspects of this matter, vigorously asserting and protecting these intellectual property rights in its name, which would seem to be of incalculable value and importance compared to the tangible assets in dispute in the South Carolina state court action.

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