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 can be used to promote private religion.
And yet, the town of Acton gave out three grants totaling $115,000 to two local churches several years ago. (Why? It doesn’t matter. It happened.) The legality of that act has been challenged ever since.
The issue can actually be traced 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 ever since the Town of Acton established its fund more than a decade ago, they’ve used quite a bit 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.
And you know what they say about giving a mouse a cookie…
In 2015, the Acton Congregational Church asked for $49,500 to help fix the wear and tear of the 170-year-old building. (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 those renovations hadn’t started when the gifts were announced, Americans United sued to prevent the town from giving away that money to churches, saying it was an illegal mingling of church and state. AU represented 13 local taxpayers in fighting the battle.
“Government should not use tax funds to support churches,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, [former] 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.”
Unfortunately, in 2016, a judge ruled in favor of the Acton officials.
The argument was that this was all about historical preservation, not about promoting religion, so the grants could stand. But that logic ignored a simple truth: better, sturdier buildings would lead to more worshipers. By using taxpayer money to renovate these buildings, it was indirectly promoting religion.
I guess that didn’t matter.
Justice Leila Kern rejected the request for an injunction, saying in her decision that “there is no likelihood that the Plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their claim that grants to the Churches under the CPA would violate the Anti-Aid Amendment.”
She said that the court finds that the “purpose of the grants to the churches under the CPA is to preserve historic resources, and not to aid the Churches.”
Eric Rothschild, senior litigation counsel with Americans United, said they will appeal the decision.
“Americans United and our clients feel very strongly that Acton’s grants to the churches violates the constitutional prohibition against using public money for maintaining or aiding any churches,” he said in an e-mail.
“Today is a good day for religious freedom in Massachusetts,” said Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United. “Money taken from the taxes of all citizens should go to funding projects for the public good, not religious imagery in houses of worship.”
Added Laser, “In the United States, houses of worship have long relied on private donations to grow and prosper. This decision affirms that great tradition and reminds us that the independence and integrity of religion are best preserved when government money does not fund houses of worship.”
The justices understood that giving money to renovate the churches really meant helping them promote their religion:
The self-described mission of the church here is “to preach and teach the good news of the salvation that was secured… through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” The proposed grants would be used to renovate the main church building, where the church conducts its worship services, and its stained glass windows, which feature explicit religious imagery and language. For town residents who do not subscribe to the church’s beliefs, the grants present a risk that their liberty of conscience will be infringed, especially where their tax dollars are spent to preserve the church’s worship space and its stained glass windows.
There’s no reason for that money to be wasted on Christianity instead of the public good.
More specifically, the justices said taxpayer money couldn’t be used to restore the stained-glass windows in Acton Congregational Church. A lower court will have to rehear the case involving the “Master Plan” to restore the church itself along with two of its properties, consistent with the arguments made in the decision. But it’s hard to see why a roof and general wear-and-tear should be covered by taxpayers. It all goes to the same purpose: helping that congregation with worship.
At a time when church/state separation is under constant attack, this is a tremendous victory for a common sense interpretation of the law.
(Image via Google Maps. Large portions of this article were published earlier)