(CN) - Worshippers who claim to be orthodox Baha'i believers are not tied to a 1966 judgment barring an earlier splinter group from associating with the Baha'i faith, the 7th Circuit ruled.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'i won an injunction 44 years ago against a dissident group called the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States of America Under the Hereditary Guardianship.
The 2-year-old Hereditary Guardianship group was barred from using the trademarked names and symbols of the Baha'i church, which was founded in Persia in 1844. When the splinter church dissolved, its former followers created new groups dedicated to the Baha'i faith.
In 2006, the church that had won the 1966 injunction requested contempt sanctions against five religious organizations and individuals, which it claimed were illegally using the name Baha'i. A federal judge in Illinois determined that the newer Baha'i groups were not bound by the injunction since they were not "key employees" in the initial case.
Writing for the Chicago-based appeals court, Judge Diane Sykes criticized the district court for not considering a relevant 1st Circuit opinion, but wrote that the federal judge's findings "are sufficiently detailed and supported by the record that we can affirm the court's no-privity finding without a remand."
Sykes also took aim at the 1966 injunction, which was limited by a Supreme Court decision three years later.
"Civil courts may decide church property claims based on 'neutral principles of law developed for use in all property disputes,' but have no authority to resolve religious disputes," Sykes wrote.
Sykes added: "When a district judge takes sides in a religious schism, purports to decide matters of spiritual succession, and excludes dissenters from using the name, symbols, and marks of the faith (as distinct from the name and marks of a church), the First Amendment line appears to have been crossed." (Parentheses in orininal.)
The National Spiritual Assembly estimates 160,000 followers in the United States and says on its website that the current splinter groups have approximately 50 members worldwide.