Addressing the issue of whether a church can claim trademark protection, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a denial of a defendant pastor’s motion to dismiss and affirmed a partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs that the pastor’s use of the “Seventh Day Adventist” mark created a likelihood of confusion. General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists v. McGill (d/b/a Creation 7th Day Adventist Church), Case No. 09-5723 (6th Cir., Aug. 10, 2010) (Moore, J.)

The Plaintiff, General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists, was formed in 1863, marking the official organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The name “Seventh-day Adventist” has been used as the church’s name since the official formation of the church, and the plaintiff owns the trademark to that name and related names. Defendant Walter McGill was a former member who broke away and founded his own church, but uses the plaintiff’s trademarked “Seventh-day Adventist” mark. McGill created many websites using the mark, including 7th-day-adventist.org. The plaintiff has not granted the defendant any licenses or permission to use their marks.

After the plaintiff filed a complaint and was issued a default judgment, the defendant appealed. The Sixth Circuit Court considered the defendant’s arguments despite the default.

The defendant claimed that enforcement of the plaintiff’s trademarks violate his Free Exercise rights of the First Amendment because his religion mandates him to call his church “Creation Seventh Day Adventist.” The defendant argued that strict scrutiny must be applied to a restraint on the Free Exercise clause because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The Sixth Circuit, citing decisions from the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, concluded that the RFRA only applied in suits against the government and not in suits between private parties. Since strict scrutiny was not applied, the Free Exercise Clause did not relieve defendant of his duty to comply with valid and neutral laws of general applicability, such as trademark law.

The defendant also argued that “Seventh-day Adventism” refers to a religion and is therefore a generic term and cannot be trademarked. While the Sixth Circuit found the defendant’s argument “logical” and no found that no single party can prevent others from using the name of a religion, the Court found that the evidence presented at the summary judgment stage was insufficient to show that the public consider “Seventh-day Adventist” to refer to a religion. The defendant has not presented sufficient evidence to show that the relevant public, identified as Christians or even “Adventist Christians,” did not understand “Seventh-day Adventist” as referring to specific religious beliefs rather than to the plaintiff’s church.

The Court affirmed as to a likelihood of confusion, finding every factor of the applicable test weighed in the plaintiff’s favor since the relevant public would have been confused as to the source of the defendant’s published materials related to his church.