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Los Angeles court confirms Christian Science settlement
STANFORD -- A Los Angeles court has ruled that two bequests totaling approximately $100 million may be shared by the Christian Science Church, Stanford University and Museum Associates (the support group for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Superior Court Judge Arnold H. Gold on Wednesday, Dec. 15, confirmed a proposed settlement agreement among the organizations and trustees for the estates that would give 53 percent from the trusts of Bella Mabury and her sister Eloise Mabury Knapp to the church, with 23.5 percent each going to the university and Museum Associates.
In so ruling, the judge dismissed the claims of eight distant relatives of Bella Mabury and 18 members of the church who filed objections to the proposed settlement in November.
The ruling caps almost two years of litigation over the estates of Mabury and Knapp, who granted large legacies to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston on condition that it meet certain conditions, some of them controversial within the church.
If the conditions were not fulfilled, the money was to be split between Stanford and Museum Associates.
Senior University Counsel Carol Swenson, Stanford's lead attorney on the case, said she was "delighted with Judge Gold's careful and well-thought-out ruling."
"The settlement of this litigation allows the three charitable beneficiaries to put this lawsuit behind them," Swenson said.
Gold told a crowded courtroom that the settlement was in the best interests of the testators (Knapp and Mabury) and all concerned, according to Swenson.
The judge said he respected the church objectors and their willingness to take a stand, but was "firmly convinced they do not qualify as 'shareholders' " within the concepts of California law, which states that to sue on behalf of an organization, individuals must be in a position to elect the church's board of directors.
He also rejected arguments against the settlement by the distant relatives.
Gold said he did not know how a litigated lawsuit would turn out, but it "might well do more harm" than a settlement to the goals Knapp and Mabury set forth in their trusts.
Assets of the two trusts will not be distributed until any appeals are exhausted, according to Mark Epstein of Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Los Angeles firm retained by Stanford to help with the case.
If and when the judgment becomes final, the university would receive its share as an unrestricted, expendable bequest. The sisters placed no restrictions on how the contingent beneficiaries could spend the assets.
When the parties reached settlement in October, Provost Condoleezza Rice said that the university has "made no plans on how we would use the gift - that would be premature at this point." She did say, however, that if the money comes to Stanford, "it is likely it would go to a number of uses, rather than one single use."
In their petition, the university, church, Museum Associates and estate trustees said that they pursued negotiations because taking the case to trial would require a "significant expenditure of the assets of each of the beneficiaries and will ultimately diminish the assets of both trusts."
By naming Stanford and Museum Associates contingent beneficiaries, the sisters made them legally responsible for attending to the women's wishes in an internal feud over the church's theology and finances.
In their wills, the women said that to receive their money, the church must publish as "authorized literature" a book - The Destiny of the Mother Church - written by Eloise Knapp's husband, Bliss, that essentially puts church founder Mary Baker Eddy on par with Jesus.
The church had refused to publish the book in the late 1940s.
The nearly identical wills of Bella Mabury and Eloise Knapp also said that the Christian Science Publishing Society must agree in writing to maintain the book for sale in "substantially all" Christian Science Reading Rooms.
That requirement would expire after a full calendar year had passed without "any demand whatsoever" for the book. Complicating matters for the church is the fact that the Christian Science Reading Rooms are not controlled by church headquarters in Boston, which also is known as the Mother Church.
After refusing for decades to publish the book, the church issued it in September 1991. Lawyers for the university and Museum Associates have said that the church did not specify it as "authorized literature." Attorneys also have questioned whether the book was available in "substantially all" Christian Science Reading Rooms.
Many church members have accused leaders of publishing the Knapp book in an effort to gain money that would help cover large losses the church sustained in an ambitious expansion of its broadcasting operations.
The church states in the petition that it has republished the book - earlier this year - with revisions intended to satisfy criticisms by Stanford and Museum Associates. It now includes a legend on the title page expressly stating that the book is "authorized literature of the First Church of Christ, Scientist."
The church also states that the book is periodically advertised in various Christian Science periodicals. Since its publication in 1991, according to the church, Destiny has outsold all books produced by the church's publishing arm except the Bible, the works of Mary Baker Eddy and the church's hymnals.
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