Should taxpayer dollars be used to help repair or maintain churches?
In New Jersey, the answer is now “Yes.” A judge said last week that more than $5.5 million in “historic preservation grants” given to churches over the past five years by officials in Morris County were legal because they didn’t directly promote faith.
The saga began in 2015, when David Steketee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit saying the grants to churches were illegal, calling out two churches that made clear in their applications they needed help in order to continue worshiping:
FFRF specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services,” and allotments to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to ensure “continued safe public access to the church for worship.”
FFRF contended the grants clearly violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution that guarantees: “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.”
Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit, however, said the grants weren’t promoting religion in any way. Just because the money helped maintain the buildings didn’t mean taxpayers were supporting Christianity.
She defended that in a rather strange way, suggesting it would’ve been impossible for the grants to promote faith.
Morris County’s historic preservation grant program limits grants to specified and clearly defined historic elements of the structures. More importantly, the funds are not released until architects certify the specific work has been performed. Thus, any diversion of grant funds to support sectarian activities is impossible. Accordingly, while FFRF suggests that the historic preservation grants serve to support religion, it is clear that there is no direct provision of funds which would support religious perspectives.
In other words, the workers are the ones getting paid, not the priests, so how could this possibly be illegal? She didn’t explain how, in an alternative universe, the churches would have to pay for their own maintenance, and these grants allow those funds to be diverted for religious purposes.
That wasn’t the only issue FFRF had with her ruling:
The court provided what FFRF deemed “scattershot justifications,” such as claiming the state has a “long history [since 1990] of making historic preservation grants to active houses of worship.” But an illegal practice does not become legal just because it has gone unchallenged for a few decades.
The decision even cited a N.J. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the government to rent space to churches. However, as Goodzeit herself pointed out, that case involved no cost to New Jersey taxpayers. Here, taxpayers are funding repairs so that the churches can, in the churches’ own words, continue to “worship” and conduct “worship services.”
Goodzeit also argued that “the extension of a general service to religious groups [does] not constitute sponsorship.” But sponsorship is not required for the government to violate New Jersey’s no-aid clause.
FFRF plans to appeal the decision. If the ruling stands, however, you can expect other churches in New Jersey to take whatever money was in their budgets for maintenance, repair, and other structural issues and put them into programming, knowing that they can just replete their accounts courtesy of state taxpayers.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)