The Massachusetts Constitution makes clear that “no such grant, appropriation or use of public money… shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.” Basically, no public money to promote private religion.
So why did the town of Acton give three grants totaling $115,000 to two local churches over the past year?
This issue goes back to 2000, when state officials created a method (the “Community Preservation Act”) for towns to fund the “acquisition, creation and preservation of historic resources.” If local leaders created a Community Preservation Fund using local property taxes, the state would also chip in a percentage of that amount to help out.
But since the Town of Acton established its fund more than a decade ago, they’ve used a lot of money to promote Christianity.
In 2013, they gave the West Acton Baptist Church more than $40,000 to restore the interior structure and create a plan to repair the entire building. A year later, they gave the same church nearly $90,000 to fix the ceiling and install fire-safety systems.
No wonder it got worse after that. (If you give a mouse a cookie…)
Last year, the Acton Congregational Church asked for $49,500 to help fix the wear and tear of the 170-year-old church. (The total cost of renovation was estimated at $55,000.)
The same church asked for $41,000 to help preserve stained glass windows in the church. (Total cost: $45,600.)
Finally, the South Acton Congregational Church leaders asked for $15,000 to assist them in fixing their roof.
All three of those proposals were approved by town officials — in fact, they gave $51,237 for the stained glass project, more than the church requested or needed.
Because these renovations haven’t even started yet, Americans United is filing the lawsuit to prevent the town from giving the churches this money, saying it’s an illegal mingling of church and state. AU represents 13 local taxpayers in fighting this battle.
“Government should not use tax funds to support churches,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The fact that a house of worship is old doesn’t mean taxpayers should be forced to subsidize a religious group to which they don’t belong. If a church needs money to preserve or restore its buildings, it should raise that money from its own members.”
Added Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director: “Historical preservation is a worthy goal, but it doesn’t justify violating the Constitution. Public funds should support buildings that can benefit all members of a community equally, not ones that are mainly used by members of one particular faith.”
Given how clearly this violates the state Constitution, this should be an easy decision. But town officials will likely argue that renovating, say, a church roof isn’t the same as actively promoting a religion. They ignore the fact that better, sturdier buildings will lead to more worshipers. However, you’d have to be blind not to see at least an indirect connection between the two.
We’ll continue to follow this case as it develops.
(Image via Shutterstock)