© Philadelphia Church of God, Part One
“PCG’s only ‘right’ is to stand before the bar of justice and have damages assessed against them and attorney’s fees for the wrong that it has committed.” —Ralph Helge, Letter to Bob Ardis
At the height of the depositions in August 2002, Ralph Helge wrote to Bob Ardis in an effort to give “accurate information” about the court case. Ardis, a minister disfellowshiped from the pcg in 1997, copied Helge’s letter and sent it to his entire mailing list, comprised mostly of pcg members.
In the letter, Mr. Helge accused Gerald Flurry of “pirating” Mystery of the Ages, of misinforming and misleading pcg members, of disobeying and disregarding the laws of the land, of using nearly every trick in the book to disrupt the legal process, among other things. He explained how we initially won at the district court level. Judge Letts said we had a right to distribute Mystery because, in Helge’s own words, “wcg was not publishing it at the time, and because it was allegedly central to pcg’s religion ….”
Exactly! If there is one thing the wcg learned during the lawsuit, it’s that they could not use their copyrights to suppress Mr. Armstrong’s written works. For all their screaming at the outset of the case—we were “stealing”; we “broke the law”—it turns out that they were the ones misapplying the copyright law. That’s what Helge indirectly admitted to Ardis. We won the first round, he said, only because they were not publishing Mystery of the Ages “at the time.” In fact, they had a “Christian duty” not to. But once they realized they couldn’t use a copyright to suppress written works, they concocted a plan to publish them.
Helge told Ardis that the three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Letts’s ruling. He failed to mention why—because they developed “plans” to publish—in the form of an annotated version.
Helge then made this astonishing comment: “… Mr. Flurry has made representations to the pcg members, giving the misimpression that there is still the possibility in the case that the court is going to award pcg the right to pirate the moa. This is simply, again, misinformation. The case has been finally decided and concluded regarding moa, and Mr. Flurry, out of sheer desperation, has exhausted all legal remedies available to him. Any attempt of pcg to acquire any court-ordered right to print the moa is over, done, finished. Legally there is no place else for him to go on this issue. I don’t know how else I can say it. pcg’s only ‘right’ is to stand before the bar of justice and have damages assessed against them and attorney’s fees for the wrong that it has committed.”
In quick response, our lead attorney drafted a letter to Helge on September 18, saying, “Any competent lawyer knows that these statements are undeniably false, and you in particular know that they are. It is beyond any dispute that the Ninth Circuit’s September 2000 decision did not constitute a final judgment.”
Even at my own deposition in 2002, wcg attorney Allan Browne wanted me to acknowledge that we lost the court case and were therefore found guilty of breaking the law. “[A]re you of the understanding that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that, in terms of Mystery of the Ages, we, the Worldwide Church of God, are entitled to damages?” I told him I understood that, but that it was a decision that could be appealed. “Well, are you aware that your counsel filed a petition … in the United States Supreme Court on that issue and that it was turned down …?” he asked.
Flurry: “Right. And I’m also aware that we have the right to do that yet again.”
Browne: “Well, after the damages trial is held, is that what you mean?”
Flurry: “Is that not true?”
Browne: “Well, I’m not answering questions here today, you are.”
Mark Helm: “He knows it is true. So he won’t answer.”
It was as if they expected us to lay down our weapons and surrender after one setback. The damages trial hadn’t even started yet. And we certainly intended to appeal after that. On top of that, the counterclaim had not yet been decided at the district level, let alone the court of appeals or at the Supreme Court.
Yet, in the summer of 2002, Ralph Helge concluded that we had “exhausted all legal remedies”—that there was nowhere else for us to go. I think the underlying message in Helge’s attempt to misinform was this: Why won’t these guys just give up? He just wanted all of this to be over, and he boiled over at the fact that we intended to fight them—to take advantage of every possible legal option at our disposal. To Helge, exercising all our options was some kind of technical maneuvering intended to thwart the judicial process. He obviously felt much different about exercising all legal options if it benefited them, even if it was dubious and dishonest—like when they dismissed their lawsuit in California three weeks after filing in early 1997 because Judge Letts wouldn’t grant their request for a temporary restraining order, hoping a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma would render better results. Or after they realized they were losing at the district level and floated the idea that they would publish an annotated Mystery of the Ages—a technical maneuver intended to thwart the judicial process. And later, when the e-publishing scheme was established—not by wcg’s publishing department or Plain Truth Ministries or anything having to do with literature, but by Ralph Helge’s legal department, and for the admitted purpose of undermining our argument that Mr. Armstrong’s works were unavailable.
All of this, spearheaded by a man who then accused us of thwarting the judicial process.
Just days before Helge’s letter landed in the mailboxes of many pcg members, my dad called for an Advisory Council of Elders meeting at our headquarters facility in Edmond on September 11. During this meeting with leading ministers of the church, he announced that we would be cutting all of our television stations, except for the cable channel wgn, because of the court case. He said that we were now in the heat of the battle and that our time, energies and finances needed to flow in that direction. He reassured the ministry that if we had the faith of the Prophet Habakkuk, God would eventually give us Mr. Armstrong’s material.
While the decision to cut television costs certainly helped increase the work’s cash flow, it wasn’t made for that reason alone. As our television audience had grown through the years, we were being contacted by an increasing number of respondents who knew very little or nothing about Herbert Armstrong—let alone his teachings. Without Mr. Armstrong’s literature, we felt these new contacts could not be spiritually nurtured until we had a breakthrough in the court case. It is difficult to grasp the full depth of our own literature without the foundational teachings of Mr. Armstrong. The idea was, let’s win the court battle first, and then concentrate on taking our message to the largest audience possible. My father also admonished us to educate our members as to why we were involved in this legal battle. He said, “Maybe God wants to teach the whole church how vital these works are.” To win this battle, every member had to do his part.
A week and a half later, pcg members from all over the world convened at various locations to celebrate our annual fall festival—the Feast of Tabernacles. During the Feast, my dad delivered two messages that were broadcast live, via satellite, to most of the pcg’s worldwide membership. In his first message, on September 22, he said he didn’t think he would ever give a more important message because of what was happening in our work. He went on to discuss the meaning of the court case—saying it was a test for us, but that if we had faith, God would revive this work and give us that literature somehow—some way. To obtain those works, though, he said we had to be willing to fight to the end—willing to do whatever God required of us.
He concluded the sermon by quoting from Helge’s letter to Bob Ardis. Regarding Helge’s comment that we had “pirated” Mr. Armstrong’s works, my dad said it was wcg leaders who had in fact pirated an entire church.
In his second live sermon, on September 27, my dad explained that one reason this trial might be dragging on is because God wants us to expose the wcg. He told the membership that we intended to press forward, fully intent on exposing them every step of the way.
At the end of the sermon, he announced the tv cuts he had made at the September 11 meeting. He told the membership that our message to the world could not be truly effective until we acquired the right to publish Mr. Armstrong’s works. “We must go all out in this court case,” he said.
Two weeks after our fall festival ended, on October 14 (the trial had been pushed back to early December), events took yet another dramatic turn: The wcg offered to sell us Mystery of the Ages for $4 million. It left us in a state of shock. We thought the price was far too high for just one book, but still, that wcg now wanted to sell it outright—with no restrictive license—was unbelievable.
Why—after all the rhetoric about annotation and e-publishing, after Morgan’s ridicule of our March offer to license, after Helge’s scathing editorial about pcg’s hopeless position (“the case has been finally decided and concluded”; “legally there is no place else for [the pcg] to go”; “pcg’s only ‘right’ is to stand before the bar of justice and have damages assessed against them and attorney’s fees for the wrong that it has committed”)—would wcg now ask us to settle?
This breakthrough was huge.
We felt like we had finally worn them down. Our first thought was to get all the works—Mystery of the Ages and the 18 we were seeking in the counterclaim. Our second thought was about finances. At the time, we only had about $1 million cash on hand, in reserve.
So on Monday, October 21, we offered the wcg $825,000 for all the copyrights and first right of refusal to buy any other Armstrong literature they might later sell. They were insulted by the offer and said if we heard laughter coming from Pasadena that night, we would know why. But we were now convinced they didn’t want to go to trial with this. They feared the negative publicity it would bring. It was clear they wanted to cut and run and were hoping to get as much as possible from us in return.
They came back with a $3.5 million offer to grant us perpetual licenses for all 19 works. On the one hand, we were ecstatic because they dropped from $4 million for Mystery to $3.5 million for everything we wanted. But instead of selling them outright, they would be licensed. We were understandably wary of any settlement offer that allowed the wcg to interfere with our plans. But they assured us that we would have control over the literature and that the licenses would be permanent. In researching the matter further, we discovered that a perpetual license was far better than anything we could have obtained from the courts—even if we fought to the end and won in the Supreme Court. In that scenario, the court would have simply ruled that what we did between 1997 and 2000—copying and distributing Mr. Armstrong’s literature—was not a violation of the copyright law. But it would not have granted us a perpetual license.
About the only thing we couldn’t do with a license is sell the works to someone else, which we wouldn’t do anyway. But still, we wouldn’t own the works. And for as hard as we fought, anything other than “© Philadelphia Church of God” inside the front cover of those books just didn’t seem right. We also didn’t like the idea of any lingering association with the wcg after a six-year lawsuit.
We bumped our original offer up to $950,000, with the same requests—all 19 copyrights and first right of refusal on anything else.
Helge Lashes Out Again
Meanwhile, Ralph Helge wouldn’t stop spouting off. The Journal, a newspaper reporting on the news of wcg and its many splinter groups, interviewed Helge on October 29. The article that was published in the October 31 issue was loaded with Helgeisms: “In various court rulings over the years, the wcg’s arguments … have overwhelmingly prevailed” and wcg “seeks to recover costs for attorneys’ fees plus damages from the pcg for illegally printing Mystery.”
Helge informed the Journal that the wcg was now electronically publishing the very works we were seeking in this case. Even the Journal expressed skepticism about the sincerity of such a move, wondering if it was simply a strategy employed to undermine the pcg’s position. “Mr. Helge insists the church’s real motive is to make the works of Mr. Armstrong available to the public and that removing the pcg’s legal claim that these works are unavailable is of only secondary importance.”
To admit that removing our legal claim was at least of “secondary importance” was astounding. They never hinted at this in the court proceedings. They made it seem like a genuine attempt to serve the needs of our members. But going back to Helge’s assessment of the lawsuit, why would the wcgeven need to make the works available if we were in such an indefensible position? Hadn’t the courts been ruling “overwhelmingly” in wcg’s favor? Were we not left with just one option in this litigation—standing before the bar of justice to have damages assessed against us for our “unlawful” and “illegal” distribution of Mystery?
Helge concluded his interview with another personal attack against my father. “Mr. Helge predicted that, whenever the final court hearing adjourns and the pcg is still not allowed to print Mr. Armstrong’s books, ‘I’ll bet he says this is a famine of hearing the Word, that Satan did this ….’”
He said that two weeks after the wcg offered to sell us Mystery of the Ages.
Meanwhile, my dad had called for a church-wide fast within the pcg. Members were asked to beseech God for special deliverance in this struggle. He scheduled the fast for the fourth weekend of November.
Denied Summary Judgment Again
The wcg lowered its settlement offer to $3.1 million, but insisted that the figure was much too low for any discussion about selling the copyrights. Their offer was for perpetual licenses only and we would have to print a disclaimer on the literature saying, “Used by permission of the Worldwide Church of God.” There’s no way we would have ever agreed to that.
We bumped our offer to $1.5 million—again, for all the copyrights and first right of refusal on anything else they might sell.
Meanwhile, preparations for the December trial had to move forward. In the Journal article, Helge had indicated that if the November 6 summary judgment hearing came out in favor of wcg, then the next step would undoubtedly be a “trial to determine attorneys’ fees and damages the pcg would have to pay the wcg.”
But at the hearing, Judge Snyder again denied their motion for summary judgment on the grounds of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Even though they were now e-publishing the works we wanted, the judge said they were “charging too much” for Mystery of the Ages. Our attorney pointed out that “although the Ninth Circuit did say that having to ask for a license and presumably having to pay for it couldn’t be a substantial burden, they didn’t say that the Worldwide Church could set the price wherever they wanted.”
“And in fact,” the judge added, “they implicitly suggest that it has to be available on a reasonable basis.”
It was yet another sharp blow to the wcg’s already wobbly legal position. Judge Snyder set the next hearing for November 25, when she would consider the arguments of both sides to exclude evidence at trial.