You can’t repair churches with public funds in New Jersey

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.


  1. lanir says

    I have learned not to be too surprised by quick summaries of legal verdicts, even when they sound ridiculous. This one certainly does, at least the lower court ruling. You would think a judge would realize the aimless morass you’d get if every law had to also spell out every semi-reasonable sounding exception. And that’s in addition to being crystal clear about what it covers to begin with. What would the next exception be? We can repair historic churches with government money as long as there’s danger of someone being harmed?

    Two things jumped out at me from reading the first couple pages of the opinion you linked. The first involved the money. I’m not sure what the county makes but that sounded like a lot of money for a small area. It turns out the churches got a little over 40% of the total funds. That’s a surprisingly transparent money grab. The second was that the opinion mentioned serious questions about legality in regards to the federal Establishment Clause should be raised even if it passed muster under the state constitution. That’s somewhat heartening after watching the US Supreme Court try to duck out of doing the same and make the narrowest rulings possible in some cases where it feels like the answer should be obvious. Then again this may just be another area where I have to realize my gut reactions are not always the right legal course.

    I wish they could get the money back but I understand how that could be an unreasonable burden. The wrongdoing was in the setup and if the churches didn’t (provably at least) have a hand in that then they did nothing wrong. Of course this would feel a lot more reasonable if poor people were treated the same way when workman’s compensation, employment insurance, or similar programs overpay them temporarily.

  2. Matt G says

    There is a simple test one could employ: what if a synagogue or mosque requested such money?

  3. Jockaira says

    I see no problem in requiring these churches to return monies given by judicial error. It is customary and moral for persons in possession of funds mistakenly given to return those funds, and for the keeping of those funds to be classified as theft according to the Holy Bible.

    It is not as if the funds were given in cash with no receipts; they were presumably paid by check, authorized by governmental deliberations. So the payment of interest while those churches were using the funds is also moral by doctrines of the Holy Bible as mentioned in Leviticus 6:4, Exodus 22:4, Deuteronomy 22:2, and Luke 19:8. The computation of that interest would be a minor exercise in standard bookkeeping practices.

    The asking for these funds should have never occurred. If rôles had been switched, i.e., the government asking for taxes to pay for infrastructure used by churches and their members, the churches would have said something like: BIOYA, that would be unconstitutional. Haven’t you heard about the disestablishment of the First Amendment?”

    This is just another example of theists believing that they deserve something extra due solely to their belief.

  4. mnb0 says

    @MG: “what if a synagogue or mosque requested such money?”
    To a certain extent and under conditions this is not a problem in The Netherlands. Because of historical and/or cultural value Dutch government (both local and national) can decide to pay subsidies. The same for atheist monuments. Here is a statue of a famous 19th Century apostate, atheist and socialist:

    Build in the 1931.. Don’t forget to visit it when you ever will visit Amsterdam.
    There is also the Domela Nieuwenhuis Park nearby.

    It’s on the site of a torn down catholic church, build by a famous Dutch architect (he also build the Amsterdam Central Station and the Rijksmuseum, two of the most important buildings of the city).

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