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Orthodox believers can keep calling themselves Baha'i, court rules, reversing earlier ruling

This is a a partial view of one of the 18 terraced gardens below the gold-domed Baha'i shrine on a hillside in the northern coastal Israeli town of Haifa.
This is a a partial view of one of the 18 terraced gardens below the gold-domed Baha'i shrine on a hillside in the northern coastal Israeli town of Haifa.
Associated Press

CHICAGO — A federal court in Chicago has ruled that a group of self-proclaimed orthodox Baha'i believers can keep calling themselves Baha'i despite a 1966 court decision that said an earlier breakaway group could not.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 23 that the 1966 decision, which barred a splinter Baha'i group from using the same Baha'i label and sharing the Greatest Name, a sacred and trademarked symbol, does not apply to a modern offshoot known as the Orthodox Baha'i Faith.

Though the judges criticized the ruling from more than four decades ago as wrongfully trying to resolve an internal religious dispute, they determined it was a moot point since the 1966 defendants' denomination is now dissolved.

Tuesday's ruling sidestepped questions about whether a religious organization can trademark its name or icons.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a lawyer and member of the Orthodox Baha'i Faith who left Chicago years ago to be closer to an orthodox community in New Mexico, said the ruling does not prevent the mainstream Baha'i denomination from suing his orthodox faction on different grounds. But he hopes it ends a tumultuous chapter for his group.

The mainstream Baha'i Faith expressed disappointment in the court's ruling.

"This is a complex issue to decide, particularly given the passage of time," a spokesman for the Baha'i Faith said in a statement. "Of course, we are disappointed that the court still failed to find the respondents in contempt of the injunction."

North American Baha'is have been based in the Chicago area ever since believers came to the U.S. about 90 years ago. Baha'u'llah, who founded the faith in Iran in the mid-19th century, is regarded by Baha'is as the most recent messenger of God in a long line including Abraham, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and Muhammad. Baha'is believe Baha'u'llah revealed God's plan by which humanity one day would unite to become a single race.

Adherents of the Orthodox Baha'i Faith — about 50 strong in the U.S. — believe the mainstream Baha'i Faith — with about 5 million members worldwide — has strayed from the religion's original teachings.

The mainstream Baha'is first took a group of breakaway believers to court in 1966 after a turbulent period in their history. Nine years earlier, Shoghi Effendi, guardian of the faith and direct descendant of the founding prophet, had died unexpectedly and allegedly without naming a successor. Naturally, a dispute arose.

The National Assembly of France and about 100 others followed a man named Charles Mason Remey. But the rest of the Baha'i community expelled Remey and sued his followers. The court then barred the splinter group from claiming the Baha'i name and using the sacred symbol. Remey's group later disbanded, but orthodox believers reorganized and continued to maintain the guardianship.

On a Web site called, the new orthodox group faults the mainstream denomination for corrupting God's plan for the world.

In 2006, the mainstream Baha'is again responded with a lawsuit that tried to hold the orthodox group to the 1966 ruling. They lost on the trial level. On Tuesday, the federal appeals court affirmed that verdict.

"The facts showed that we were not in relation to the other organization," Goldberg said. "The judgment stands. The problem for them is ... we're not bound by that judgment."

The verdict does not prevent the mainstream Baha'is from suing again on different grounds such as violation of trademark law. But Goldberg maintains that a religious symbol cannot be trademarked and religious authority is not a matter for the courts to decide.

"We're the true faith. That's what we would say," he said during a 2009 Chicago Tribune interview. "That has to be decided in the hearts and minds of the Baha'i, not by a secular court order."