SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A Philippines-based megachurch must amend its claims against a group of expelled ministers and members it accuses of stealing its logo and copyrighted hymns to start their own competing church.
The lawsuit brought by Iglesia Ni Cristo arises from a three-year schism that resulted in the expulsion of several ministers, church officials and congregants in 2015. The splinter group formed a new church called H20 Now USA.
Iglesia Ni Cristo says the new church has ripped off its services down to the arrangement of the chairs, use of the same hymns and hymnals, seal and flag. It says H20 members hold themselves out as Iglesia Ni Cristo congregations, using the INC name, seal and flag to deceive their flock into believing they are attending INC worship services.
Founded in the Philippines in 1914, Iglesia Ni Cristo boasts congregations in 144 countries worldwide, including the United States.
H20 paints a starkly different picture of events. The former INC members claim they were booted out for exposing and criticizing corruption within the church and the “lavish lifestyles” its leadership maintains.
In court documents, expelled member Jesle Llaban Kuizon says he was ousted after his wife shared an online video discussing corruption and mismanagement. Edwin Lionel Mora says he was expelled for participation in a July 2015 rally “protesting the INC’s unchristian treatment of the family members of INC’s executive minister, Eduardo Manalo.”
The dissenters claim they started H20, also known as Restore the Church Fund and Restore the Church Group, to protest corruption and help those who have been victimized by Iglesia Ni Cristo. Some of the defendants actually deny affiliation with H20.
Meanwhile, INC slings its own allegations of misconduct, claiming H20 misrepresents itself in order to get members to attend direct marketing presentations for rice cookers, air humidifiers, and juicers.
U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman dismissed INC’s trademark and copyright claims Wednesday, saying the church cannot show which defendant used which trademark, or which copyrighted hymns were used.
She also deferred ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion brought by H20 pending INC’s amendment of its complaint.
INC’s attorney did not respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.
Iglesia Ni Cristo preaches it is the only true church, restored from the original church founded by Jesus Christ after the resurrection. It rejects the trinity – God as father, son and holy spirit – as heresy, and believes its founder Eduardo Manalo was “God’s last messenger.”