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Trademark infringement case sees North American pastor imprisoned

McGill sued for wrongful use of “Seventh-day Adventist” name; ignored court orders to remove signs

A North American pastor is in prison for defying a court’s ruling in a trademark infringement dispute case that underscores the significance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s corporate identity.

Walter McGill was apprehended and turned over to San Bernardino County law enforcement on the campus of church-run Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California on July 13. His arrest concluded a legal saga spanning nearly a decade and drawing widespread media attention.

McGill raised concern among church legal counselors when he used the phrase “Seventh-day Adventist” to name his small congregation in Guys, Tennessee, the Creation Seventh Day Adventist Church. McGill claimed he was an Adventist pastor, but a database of service records administered by the church in North America indicates otherwise.

In 2005, the Adventist world church’s Office of General Counsel first asked McGill to cease using the name “Seventh-day Adventist” on both his church building and several websites.

“At the time, everyone thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a little church in Tennessee,’ but our primary concern was McGill’s Web presence,” said Todd McFarland, an associate general counsel in the Office of General Counsel at Seventh-day Adventist world church headquarters.

A year later, the church’s Office of General Counsel pursued a trademark infringement case against McGill, suing him for wrongful use of “Seventh-day Adventist.” The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s name is a registered trademark and can legally apply only to official church congregations, entities, institutions, denominational ministries and certain lay and professional groups as approved by the world church headquarters.

Most such trademark infringement disputes are settled outside the court, with litigation a “last resort” only after “months or years” of dialogue, McFarland said. More often, a ministry is granted a name-usage license if they qualify, or are persuaded to change their name.

When McGill refused to attend a court-ordered settlement conference, the court dismissed the case. McGill appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Adventist Church won despite his eleventh-hour raising of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The act, which the Adventist Church supports, is meant to prevent laws that encumber an individual’s free expression of religion. In McGill’s case, however, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the act did not apply. McGill responded by filing a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, seeking judicial review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The nation’s highest court denied the writ.

“In the interim, there were some orders for the signs to come down,” McFarland said. “They actually sent the marshals in to remove some signs, which McGill promptly put back up.”

In May, the Sixth Circuit found McGill in contempt for not complying with court orders to remove the signs, issuing a warrant for his arrest.

Responding to McGill’s recent apprehension, Seventh-day Adventist Church officials have emphasized that McGill was imprisoned strictly for ignoring the court’s orders.

“Mr. McGill is free to engage in any ministry he wants, preach whatever he wants, say whatever he wants,” McFarland said. “What he simply cannot do is falsely associate himself with the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” 

Garrett Caldwell, Adventist world church Public Relations director and church spokesman, added that in cases such as McGill’s, the church is fundamentally protecting its identity.

“People understand what identity theft means on a personal level and how devastating it can be to an individual or a family,” Caldwell said.

“When a congregation that has never had a connection with our denomination, and who does not wish to, because of differing beliefs, wants to simply co-opt our name, we should not overlook this or find this acceptable. To do so would be irresponsible on our part,” he added.