In a unanimous decision just announced by the New Jersey Supreme Court, taxpayer dollars cannot be used to help repair or maintain churches. It’s a major victory for church/state separation advocates and one that will save taxpayers in the state millions of dollars that would otherwise have gone to promoting religious dogma.
The case involved more than $5.5 million in “historic preservation grants” that were given to a dozen churches in Morris County between 2012 and 2015. They were presumed legal because they didn’t directly promote faith.
But giving churches money for general maintenance is promoting faith since it frees up funding that goes right back into worship.
That’s why plaintiff David Steketee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2015 saying the grants were illegal.
Unfortunately, a judge ruled against them in January of 2017. If the decision wasn’t appealed, there was a good chance other churches would’ve taken advantage of the loophole, taking whatever money was in their budgets for maintenance, repair, and other structural issues and putting them into programming, knowing that they could just replete their accounts courtesy of state taxpayers.
FFRF appealed the decision and it eventually landed in front of the state’s supreme court. Today, thankfully, all seven of the justices overturned the earlier decision.
Here, the County awarded $4.6 million to twelve churches to repair active houses of worship — from roofs to bell towers, from stained glass windows to ventilation systems. The use of public funds to pay for those repairs violated the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause.
The judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran — which allowed taxpayer funding for ostensibly secular projects like a playground even if it was on church property — didn’t apply here because this was clearly not a secular project.
… the public funds awarded in this case actually went toward “religious uses.” It is clear from the stipulated facts in the record that the Churches all “have active congregations that regularly worship, or participate in other religious activities,” and all hold “regular worship services in one or more of the structures that they have used, or will use,” taxpayer-funded grants to repair.
… a number of the applications expressly stated that churches sought funding for repairs to continue to conduct worship services.
This case does not involve the expenditure of taxpayer money for non-religious uses, such as the playground resurfacing in Trinity Lutheran.
The judges said it would be virtually impossible to figure out how much of the grant money was used for religious or non-religious purposes at this point, so they are allowing the old grants to remain in place. The ruling isn’t retroactive. The churches can have the money already given to them, but the good news is that they won’t be able to receive the grants in the future.
FFRF is obviously thrilled with the victory but also relieved that these justices understood their argument.
“It’s shocking that it took a trip to the New Jersey Supreme Court to enforce such a plain constitutional command,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “New Jersey taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief that their constitutional religious liberty rights have been protected.”
“This is not just a win for secular citizens, but for every New Jersey taxpayer,” explains FFRF constitutional attorney Andrew L. Seidel. “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.”
The Religious Right won’t see it that way. They’ll inevitably twist this ruling into some tale of Christian persecution. But when all the justices speak in unison like this, anyone looking for the facts will find them easily. They just have to read the ruling instead of the spin.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)