We have become used to religious institutions finding ways to get public funding for their purposes, the main one being tax exemptions for their income and property but also in other ways such as setting up charter schools that can get taxpayer money. Politicians know that there is little to lose in pandering to religion and one of the ways is to siphon money in their direction. But some churches in New Jersey went as far as to use public funds to repair their churches. What was astonishing was that a lower court had allowed the practice. But today the New Jersey supreme court ruled unanimously that such spending was unconstitutional.
The lawsuit against the practice was brought the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its members David Stekestee. Here is part of the statement issued by the FFRF today.
FFRF and Steketee originally protested more than $5.5 million in funding to churches since 2012 by the Historic Preservation Trust Fund. The lawsuit specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown, which, in the words of the church, would allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services,” as well as disbursements to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to ensure “continued safe public access to the church for worship.” All of the churches that received the grants have active congregations.
FFRF contended the grants violate the unambiguous command of 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.” This taxpayer protection predates the creation of the United States and was seen by Thomas Jefferson and other Founders as an essential guarantee to prevent the government from establishing religion and forcing citizens to support churches or religions in which they disbelieve.
The lower court ruling claimed an unprecedented exception to this admirably clear command, holding that Morris County was justified in ignoring this constitutional mandate because the funds were part of a historic preservation program. Fortunately, the state’s top court has corrected this mistake, overruling the trial court and holding that the New Jersey Constitution means exactly what it says.
“We find that the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program ran afoul of that longstanding provision,” the Supreme Court states. It agrees with FFRF’s central contention that not being taxed to support a church is a central issue of religious freedom of conscience.
The court decided not to try and get back the $4.6 million that twelve churches already got and presumably spent from 2012 to 2015 due to the trial judge’s mistaken ruling, so the churches did end up ahead.
You can read the opinion here.