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NJ Supreme Court Rules No Taxpayer Money to Restore Active Churches

State’s top court decides taxpayer funds cannot be awarded to houses of worship still serving a congregation, even if goal is historic preservation of church structures

st peters
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Morristown

New Jersey taxpayers’ money cannot be used to support houses of worship, even when the stated purpose of the funding is the historic preservation of church structures, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The unanimous decision sets a precedent against state and local governments using taxpayer money to benefit religious congregations.

“This ruling makes a powerful statement that taxpayer funds should not go to houses of worship,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed an amicus brief in the case. “It makes clear that under the provisions of the New Jersey Constitution, there is no exception for historic preservation when you are talking about money funding active houses of worship.”

The case involves Morris County’s decision between 2012 and 2015 to award $4.6 million from its Preservation Trust Fund to a dozen churches for historic preservation work. That represented more than 40 percent of the funding given during that period, according to the court decision. The county — with voter approval — established the fund in 2002 and now collects 5/8 of a cent per $100 of valuation from county taxpayers for preservation purposes. (The fund has the authority to collect far more — as much as 5.25 cents per $100 of valuation.)

Paying for preservation

first presbyterian church new vernon
First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon

The case revolved around awarding monies to two churches along South Street in the Morristown business district: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which got $428,134 for the preservation of its 110-year-old Gothic tower, and Church of the Redeemer, which received $566,290 to help restore its Gothic Revival Parish House and the church’s slate roof. The Church of the Redeemer is on the state and national historic registers. Other, larger grants were $366,000 to the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham Township for roof repairs and $300,000 to the 185-year-old First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon for roof and chimney work.

As part of its agreement with all groups receiving funds, including religious groups, the county required them to open their properties to the public at least during certain times and register those structures not already enrolled with the state and national historic registers.

While Morris County stressed the historic value of the properties in giving the money, the court decided that providing taxpayer funds violates the Religious Aid Clause of the state constitution that dates back to 1776 and guarantees “no person shall … be obliged to pay … taxes … for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that “the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches,” and that Morris County’s program “ran afoul of that longstanding provision.”

The county and the churches had argued that withholding funds from houses of worship would violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and relied on a year-old case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Missouri could not deny a grant for playground resurfacing to a church-operated preschool that is open to all applicants of other faiths.

Rabner rejected that argument, stating that he does not think the 2017 decision applies in this instance, explaining, “In the case before us, all of the churches have active congregations, and all have conducted regular worship services in one or more structures repaired with grant funds. Several churches specifically explained that they sought funds in order to be able to continue to host religious services.”

In fact, The Presbyterian Church in Morristown, a more than 200-year-old church located along The Green in Morristown, wrote in its grant application that it was seeking funds to “historically preserve the building allowing its continued use by our congregation for worship services,” as well as by the community and other organizations, the court decision notes. The church received $264,616 in 2013 to restore its chapel.

Not required to return the money

The decision does not seek to force any of the religious organizations that received funds to return them, stating that it’s possible some of that money may already have been spent “in good faith reliance on the grant process and the trial court’s ruling. “ In January 2017, a Superior Court judge had ruled in the county’s favor, holding that the Religious Aid Clause should not be taken literally. The Supreme Court took the matter on direct appeal, bypassing the Appellate Division.

Recognizing the importance of the ruling, Rabner wrote, “Today’s opinion clarifies and reaffirms the vitality of the Religious Aid Clause in light of more recent federal case law.” The principles of the decision “will apply prospectively.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the suit in late 2015 along with David Steketee, a member of the foundation and a Morris County resident.

“This is not just a win for secular citizens, but for every New Jersey taxpayer,” said Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney with the foundation. “Governments in New Jersey cannot force Muslims to bankroll temples and yeshivas, compel Jews to subsidize Christian churches and Catholic schools, force Christians to fund mosques and madrassas, or nonbelievers to support any religion. It’s a win for all.”

John M. Bowens, who represented Morris County, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision. The county has not yet decided whether it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the matter. Because the county asserted that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave it the right to give the funds to religious groups, the county could ask the nation’s highest court to take the case based on that argument.

Although the decision focused on grants to religious groups between 2012 and 2015, documents on the county trust’s website show that Morris has given money to churches dating back to at least 2005 and up to and including last year.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had countered and continues to assert “that not being taxed to support a church is a central issue of religious freedom of conscience.”

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