After more than a year of dithering, officials in Morris County, New Jersey are waving a white flag of surrender in a church/state separation lawsuit that resulted in them owing over $750,000 to an atheist group.
It’s the end of a case that could have allowed churches to renovate their buildings using taxpayer funds.
You can read all the details here, but the gist of the case was that Morris County officials gave millions of dollars in “historic preservation grants” to a dozen churches between 2012 and 2015… even though those churches were still being used for services. In other words, rather than using money from the churches’ own bank accounts — which is what they’re supposed to do — those congregations got taxpayers to foot the bill on their behalf.
In 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously (and correctly) ruled that this was a violation of church/state separation. They allowed the previous grants to stand, but Morris County couldn’t make similar grants in the future.
That also meant the Freedom From Religion Foundation was entitled to legal fees to cover their work having to sue over the initial grant program, fighting the case in court, and writing briefs all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected the case last March. That’s a lot of attorney time.
Last April, however, the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders filed a new lawsuit against FFRF and plaintiff David Steketee saying basically, We shouldn’t have to pay all this money. They also said that, because the New Jersey Supreme Court said the grants they gave out could remain in place, the courts should reinstitute the grant program for religious institutions.
To put it another way, they lost the case… and then sued because they lost the case. FFRF called it a “harebrained Hail Mary.”A judge dismissed that lawsuit in December.
It’s not all the money FFRF initially requested for a variety of technical/legal reasons, but it still boils down to a bill totaling near $218,000.
Finally, the Superior Court of New Jersey has ordered a total of $217,949.15 to FFRF’s attorneys, including $124,687.50 to outside counsel Paul Grosswald and $28,875 to constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who defended FFRF at the Supreme Court level. FFRF was reimbursed the remainder for the work of its staff attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Ryan Jayne. The case was unusually complex, progressing through five different courts.
FFRF’s win ultimately may save New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions over the next decade, since the grants to churches may have proceeded in a similar vein in all 21 counties.
In a statement to me, plaintiff David Steketee welcomed the ruling:
After months and months of pedantic appeals and complaints from the Morris County Freeholders, all of the amazing lawyers who worked on our case to end flagrant violations of the NJ State Constitution will finally be compensated for their efforts. While I hope the Freeholders will accept the judge’s decision and pay as ordered, I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if they made yet another attempt to avoid paying. Let’s hope they come to their senses, stop wasting more taxpayer money defending unconstitutional practices and avoiding payments, and finally put this all to rest.
It’s a legitimate worry. How many times does a court have to tell you you’re wrong before you stop wasting everyone’s time? Morris County has wasted a lot of time and money fighting for something they never should have done in the first place. At some point, they need to recognize that the law applies to them, too. Pay the bill and move on.
(Image via Shutterstock)