Vol. XXXII No. 11 — November 1954

Freemasonry and Civil Law

Alphonse Cerza

The information herein set forth is abstracted from the much larger Masonic Service Association Digest by Alphonse Cerza, published April 1953.

Freemasonry is a supporter of civil law, government, justice. Its lessons on these subjects are definite, concise, uncompromising. But it turns seldom to civil law for relief; more often its sons ask consideration in the law courts when believing that some determination of lodge or grand lodge has interfered with their civil rights.

Law cases involving Freemasonry and Freemasons are more largely concerned with tax and exemption from tax than any other one matter. But a partial list of other cases discloses that Freemasonry and the law have been concerned together over such matters as: If jurors are Masons, is an injustice done a non-Mason in litigation? Can the civil law determine questions of exclusive territorial jurisdiction? Can an injunction be had to stop a Masonic trial? Can an injunction prevent the grand master’s suspension of a master? In a suit involving a Mason and a non-Mason is it fair that the judge should be a Mason? Can laws prohibiting the improper wearing of Masonic insignia be sustained? Can a majority dissolve a lodge against the will of the minority? Is the wearing of a Masonic ring by a defendant in a criminal court prejudicial? Can a dissolving lodge distribute its funds to its members? Can a grand lodge prohibit work in a lodge other than in English? Can a civil court compel the reinstatement of a suspended or expelled Mason? May a Masonic body put a suspended Mason upon a Masonic committee? When a Masonic obligation and the oath in court to tell the whole truth conflict, which must yield?

In so short a Bulletin as this, obviously not all these — not to mention many other causes and cases — can be described.

Some of interest follows: In a Wyoming case to recover personal property one of the witnesses refused to testify as to a conversation with one of the parties on the ground that it was a confidential communication between two Masons.

The court held that the witness must testify, and used the following language:

However binding an obligation may be, as between members of the same society, secret or otherwise, not to divulge to others that which may be confidentially communicated to them, such an obligation must be understood to be subject to the laws of the country, and doubtless the societies themselves recognize that such a limitation attaches to the obligation; and therefore it cannot be said that the obligation is violated when the disclosure is compelled in a court of justice, in the course of administration of the laws.

Courts in different states and at different times do not always agree with each other!

In Indiana the criminal code prohibited the wearing of an emblem of a society of which one is not a member. A defendant was found guilty of violating this law and he appealed on the ground that the statute was unconstitutional.

The court in sustaining the validity of the law said: It is a matter of common knowledge that membership in most, if not all, societies or organizations, whether secret or otherwise, is the result of fitness and selection, which gives members standing and character at least among their fellows, and to a greater or lesser degree with the public, and he who wears a badge or emblem of the order or society without being a member holds himself out to the public and to actual members as guilty of a false personation. It is and of itself a deceit, and a false pretense, and its object could be nothing else than deception that it is itself, with possibly ulterior motives. It is evidence of the first act of an imposter in the course of a premeditated design to prey upon those who from fraternal, charitable or sympathetic natures become the victims of false personation, imposition, and fraud, and the object of this statute was the prevention of this species of fraud.

In Montana the court held invalid a statute making it unlawful to wear a badge or button of certain societies unless the person was entitled to wear it. The reason for the decision was that the question of who was entitled to wear the badge or pin was left to the societies; and because the wives and daughters of the members were exempt from the statute.

From time to time interested merchandisers have the bright idea that they will trademark a Masonic emblem, thus securing for themselves all business that requires its printing or display. The matter has been decided for all time (if anything is ever decided for all time!) by the Commissioner of Patents, who, in 1872, held that the Masonic Square and Compasses could not be trademarked for commercial purposes and denied a trademark application to do so.

An interesting case concerned with the right of Masons to change Masonry goes back nearly one hundred and fifty years yet is good law today.

In 1807, there were two grand lodges in South Carolina. Steps were taken to unite them into one body, and as a result the Grand lodge of South Carolina was formed. The usual resolutions were signed. Some members objected to the union of the two bodies. The plaintiffs, who had been expelled from one of the bodies before the consolidation, filed suit to prevent payment of a debt of one of the bodies.

The court held that lodges have no power to change any of the Ancient Landmarks, and then used the following language:

and this is consistent with the very nature of Freemasonry, which professing to be founded on the broadest principles of charity and benevolence, and to embrace the whole human race, and to be in connection with the brethren all over the world, would not maintain the connection without adhering invariably to certain immutable principles, and promoting certain forms and ceremonies common to all and unchangeable by any.

The court also held that it was a violation of Masonic law to impose a new oath that the new grand lodge apparently desired. The court used the following language:

and the oath itself was subject to great objection, as it required obedience, not to the principles of Masonry, known and established, but to all such future regulations as should be made by the new grand lodge; which is the imposition of an obligation, almost without example.

Without better cause than has been shown in the several cases in which Masons have sought to enjoin actions of grand master or grand lodge that interfered with what they considered their legal, as well as Masonic, rights the courts have refused to interfere.

Two cases in point: In California an injunction suit was filed to stop the defendants from proceeding with the trial of charges filed against the plaintiff in a Royal Arch Chapter.

The court held it could not issue the injunction. The court announced the following general rules: members of voluntary fraternal organizations prescribe their own rules of conduct; these rules within the society constitute a contract between the members. Whether these rules have been violated is for the society to determine and not the courts. Action must be according to the rules passed by the members, or the association is proceeding in violation of its own rules. The court used the following significant language:

It is only when there is an abuse of discretion, and a clear, unreasonable and arbitrary invasion of private rights, that courts will assume jurisdiction over such societies or corporations. With questions of policy, doctrine, or discipline courts will not interfere. Courts will compel adherence to the charter and to the purpose for which the society was organized, but they will not do more.

In New York a Mason entered suit to compel his reinstatement after expulsion for cause. The court held that it could examine the matter to ascertain if the plaintiff had been expelled in accordance with the laws of the association. The court in its decision said:

When the plaintiff became a Mason he submitted himself to the government of the order, as prescribed in its constitution and by-laws. Whatever rights he obtained, he obtained from the society itself. He held those rights subject to the laws of the governing body, and to no other. He was bound to conduct himself in accordance with the rules and laws of the society, and he knew that, if he failed so to conduct himself, he was amenable to the court established by the organization itself.

The court refused to grant the plaintiff any relief.

But if a Masonic body or Masons proceed with Masonic discipline that is not in accord with Masonry’s own regulation, a court may interfere.

In a Maryland case charges were filed against a Master of a lodge on the ground that he had called a meeting at a place not permitted under the rules and at this meeting it was decided to purchase a piece of real estate. At the hearing on the charges the plaintiff was excluded and was not given an opportunity to be heard; nevertheless he was expelled.

The court held that the hearing had not been held in accordance with the rules of the Craft and therefore the order of expulsion was invalid; the members are entitled to be heard when charges are filed against them; and courts can interfere to protect the member who has been expelled in a manner violating the laws of the order and the member has exhausted the procedure prescribed by the rules of the association.

From time to time the question comes up in court as to whether a Mason on a jury should be permitted in the trial of a Mason, or whether a judge who is a member of the fraternity is qualified to sit on the case that involves the trial of a Mason.

The common sense of a few decisions in such cases is evident: In Missouri a case involved the construction of a trust; the Masonic home was mentioned in the trust. The trial judge was a Mason.

The appellate tribunal held that membership of the trial judge did not disqualify him because he had no direct financial interest in the outcome of the case. The payment of dues by the trial judge and the possibility that at some later date he might benefit as a member of the Home could not influence his decision.

In Georgia, a court held that a judge of the Supreme Court was not disqualified to consider a case involving the construction of a will merely because he was a Mason and the case concerned the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children; nor is a trial judge disqualified in the case merely because he is a Scottish Rite Mason. The basic reason for this rule is that the judges have no financial interest in the outcome of the case.

In Georgia in a prosecution for murder, an African-American defendant wore a Masonic ring. Two white jurors in the case were Masons. The prosecuting attorney while cross-examining the defendant asked him: “Since when did you put on that big ring there, and by what authority are you wearing it? Isn’t it your intention to escape the gallows by wearing it?”

The court held that the last sentence was objectionable, but that it was not prejudicial because the jurors had been instructed to disregard it.

May a grand lodge dictate to its lodges what language they shall use? During and after the First World War the question was agitated in a number of places; in the nation are lodges that work, for instance, in the German language.

The Grand Lodge of New Jersey passed a resolution requiring Masonic work to be in the English language. Schiller Lodge failed to obey this rule, and after a trial the charter was forfeited.

The court ruled it could not interfere with the internal affairs of a voluntary association.

Suits involving money are best entered only after considerable heart searching! The courts do not like to interfere with a lodge or grand lodge’s management of its own funds. Here are three cases in point:

In Illinois a plaintiff filed suit to recover his initiation fees after he had been expelled from the lodge for un-Masonic conduct.

The court held that fees voluntarily paid without pretense and fraud or overreaching cannot be recovered. The expulsion of a member does not constitute a rescission of the contract under which initiation fees were paid. Courts will not interfere with the by-laws of a voluntary association “such as is the defendant.”

In New Hampshire a lodge was in the process of dissolution, and the plaintiffs sought to secure their share of the money in the treasury.

The court held that the funds were for charitable purposes and that the division among the members would not be serving the purpose for which the funds were received; that the members could not vote to divide the money among themselves; and that the members are not entitled to any part of the money.

In Louisiana nearly one hundred years ago a suit was filed to cancel a donation made by a majority of the members of a lodge, and to recover certain property. In 1819 the legislature had created a grand lodge with the power to create lodges. In the year 1855 Polar Star Lodge was formed. In 1858 a lodge with the same name was formed under the general corporation law; most of the members of the new lodge were members of the old one.

The court held that the majority have no legal right to dissolve an organization. Members may withdraw, but so long as there are a sufficient number of members to carry on the association exists.

Courts have from time to time given definitions of Freemasonry: In Massachusetts a court declared:

A Masonic lodge is a voluntary association of persons, closely united by rules, usages, and ceremonies, maintaining a perpetual succession, by the admission of new members; and, whatever other objects they may have, one leading one is that of charity, supporting the poor and indigent members, their widows and orphans.”

In Nebraska a court held that:

Masonry is traditionally and generally described as a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. It teaches as a foundation principle faith in God and immortality of the soul Masonry is not sectarian in its religious teaching It aims to bring its devotees a deeper and more conscious contact with spiritual things. To the extent that religious purposes include the field of morals, Masonry makes common cause with organized religion. Masonry is tolerant of all faiths and builds a moral and spiritual fellowship on the foundations of fundamental morality common to them. It brings its members to the altar of prayer, and by its every teaching and effort seeks to make real the invisible power of love, the intrinsic worth of harmony, and the beauty and eternal reality of the ideal. Outside of the activity of Masonry that is devoted to charity, which constitutes a very substantial and major part of its endeavors, all of its activities in all its bodies are devoted to those purposes that properly fall within the definition of “educational” and “religious.”

The court observed that all these things can be verified by a large body of literature.

An Alabama court held that the

society known as Free-masons has long existed in this country. . . . The purpose and objects of the society have been made public in numerous books, periodicals, and public addresses. From all these sources of information, and from the generally received and accredited judgment of the public, the sole purpose and object with which Masonic institutions acquire money and property, beyond their current expenses as a society . . . are for the bestowal of reliefs and charities to the needy.

The Masonic Service Association of North America