The Supreme Court may decide how much taxpayer money churches can receive if they take up a case that has already been settled in New Jersey.
You may recall that, earlier this year, in a unanimous ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court, the judges said taxpayer dollars could not be used to help repair or maintain churches. It was a major victory for church/state separation advocates and one that would 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. In April, 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 allowed the old grants to remain in place. The ruling wasn’t retroactive. The churches could have the money already given to them, but the good news was that they wouldn’t be able to receive the grants in the future.
“In Morris County, we want to preserve all of our historical sites, including our magnificent houses of worship, some of which date back to the 1700s and were designed by the leading architects of their time,” said Doug Cabana, the freeholder director of Morris County. “Preserving the character and beauty of our county is a critical element of the county’s cultural and economic success.
These aren’t simply historical sites because they’re still being used as churches. That’s why giving them money constitutes a promotion of religion. But if SCOTUS takes up this case, they would have the ability to answer these questions raised in the writ request:
1. Whether using generally available historic preservation funds to repair or restore a house of worship constitutes a “religious use” that falls outside the scope of Trinity Lutheran.
2. Whether the categorical exclusion of all active houses of worship from historic preservation grants violates Trinity Lutheran and the First Amendment as an exclusion based on religious status.
The first one is what the New Jersey court said no to. Even if grant money is available to everyone, helping a church with maintenance is, at least indirectly, a promotion of Christianity. It’s not like non-Christians get something out of this.
The second one is an issue raised by one of the New Jersey justices. While he sided with FFRF altogether in that unanimous ruling, he noted that he didn’t like the categorical ban on churches that were still being used for services.
Becket is right to want answers to those questions… or at least they want to change the current answers, which deny taxpayer funding going to active churches because that would be a promotion of religion.
Hopefully, this won’t be one of the few cases the Supreme Court takes up. If they accept it, and the makeup of the Court includes Brett Kavanaugh, there’s reason to believe churches across the country will start asking for taxpayer money when it comes to everything that’s not directly promoting Jesus.