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Heritage issue divides in Independence, Missouri

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Visitors to a tiny church in Independence notice three things in its sanctuary:

The upright piano with hymn book.

The three stained-glass crosses in the west wall.

The black, plastic trash bag stretched across the north wall.

The plastic covers a bronze seal whose design, incorporating a small child standing with a lion and a lamb, is familiar to many Kansas City-area residents.

To the approximately 30 baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ, Devon Park Restoration Branch, the seal is considered a sacred symbol, representing their faith and traditions in the old Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

To a federal court judge, however, it is a trademark owned by a much bigger church.

U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner in the spring granted a preliminary injunction to the Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence, which in 2001 changed its name from the RLDS. The ruling prohibits the Devon Park Restoration Branch from using the lion and lamb symbol, as well as the RLDS name.

Both sides are preparing for a trial next spring.

After the injunction ruling, Devon Park Branch leaders removed an old RLDS flag from their sanctuary. They applied duct tape to the church sign out front, covering the words "Reorganized" and "of Latter Day Saints."

But rather than to try to take down the heavy bronze seal, attached by threaded screws to the interior wall studs, they opted to stretch a trash bag across it.

"We thought the trash bag was appropriate," said James Noland, a Devon Park Branch elder.

Now the trash bag serves as a metaphor for the awkward relations between the Community of Christ — which claims about 250,000 members in 50 countries around the world — and a much smaller network of "Restoration" branches, about 25 of which are located between Wichita and St. Louis.

Though this rift has been ongoing since the 1980s, the disagreement has moved to federal court, with the Devon Park Branch committing about $200,000 in legal fees to fight the lawsuit. In 2007, the Community of Christ filed a similar lawsuit against a Restoration congregation in Raymore.

The new litigation, to one observer, represents an uptick in the discord and a continuing resolve by members of the Restoration community.

"They just really want that name," said Bill Russell, an emeritus history professor at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, operated by the Community of Christ. "They are the ones who believe they truly represent the theology of the church of a generation ago, the church of the 1950s."

Though Community of Christ officials say they have attempted to reconcile differences with Restoration members, they needed to go to court to resolve the confusion over to whom the symbol and name belong.

So last year they sued the Devon Park Branch.

"We never wanted to have to go legally to stop them. That was not our desire and intent," said Linda Booth, Community of Christ director of communications. "They are our brothers and sisters in Christ."

But, she added, the risk of confusion forced the issue. Many Kansas City area high schools use the large Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence for graduation services. People involved in those events, Booth said, see the familiar lion and lamb seal on the side of the structure.

It is important that all know that the seal and the RLDS name belong to the Community of Christ, Booth said.

Such contention has precedent in the LDS community.

The Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence since 1920, split from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — founded by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. — in 1860.

Joseph Smith III, a son of the prophet, founded the RLDS church, which is separate from the church founded by those led to Utah by Brigham Young.

In 2001, the RLDS changed its name to Community of Christ. But a schism between it and its more conservative members has been continuing since the mid-1980s.

At a 1984 world conference, church members voted in favor of ordaining women into the church priesthood. Over the ensuing six years, about 20 percent of active members split from the church, said Russell, who has written a book manuscript on the split.

The Devon Park Branch has received financial assistance from other Restoration congregations, Noland said, and church members unanimously have voted to, if need be, put their church building on the market to help finance further litigation.

"This is how serious we are about this," he said.

At services last Sunday, several church members described their frustration over the lawsuit.

"They are trying to take our heritage from us," said Mark Strychacz. "But we want to continue with our heritage."

Noland regrets that church resources must be used for legal fees. His congregation belongs to The Joint Conference of Restoration Branches, which operates international ministries.

"We have people asking us to come to their countries, but we are spending the money fighting amongst ourselves," he said.

The federal litigation has continued despite a reconciliation initiative that began in the late 1990s. Booth remembers two reconciliation services that filled more than half of the approximately 6,000 seats in the Community of Christ Auditorium.

But the reconciliation effort, Booth said, "is on hold right now."

At the Devon Park Branch, the first book of Samuel — featuring the story of David and Goliath — has been consulted often.

But Noland's readings last Sunday were from Nephi, in the Book of Mormon.

" 'For they shall war among themselves, and the sword of their own hands shall fall upon their own heads,' " Noland read before adding, "What does that remind you of?"