By Kevin Coughlin
Morris County can continue awarding historic preservation grants to churches in Morristown and across the county, a state judge has ruled.
Sitting in Somerset County, Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit last week dismissed a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Madison resident David Steketee, who charged that millions of grant dollars since 2002 have violated separations of church and state outlined by the state and federal Constitutions.
“Excluding historical churches from receipt of reimbursements available to all historical buildings would be tantamount to impermissibly withholding of general benefits to certain citizens on the basis of their religion…and would be inconsistent with the spirit of our state and federal Constitutions,” ruled state Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit, sitting in Somerville.
The Morris freeholders welcomed the decision in a statement:
“In Morris County, as in all counties in New Jersey and across the nation, churches and other religious buildings are a vital part of the historic fabric of where we live, interwoven with the history of how our county developed.
“In voting to set aside grant money for historic preservation, county taxpayers overwhelmingly told us that they value that history. We look forward to a continued historic preservation program that targets our most valuable historic assets.”
Only structures on, or eligible for, inclusion on state or national Registers of Historic Place are considered for these grants, which are chosen according to government guidelines by a volunteer panel of county residents with expertise in historical structures, the statement said.
Steketee said an appeal is likely.
“Naturally, I’m disappointed with the outcome and disagree with [the judge’s] reasoning. I will be discussing the case with our lawyers this week to determine next steps, but we do plan to appeal,” he said.
Four Morristown churches–the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary–were among defendants named in the suit.
Attorney Ken Wilbur issued this statement on behalf of the Morristown churches:
“Preserving historic structures is an essential governmental function in New Jersey. Structures are no less historic because they are used as houses of worship. Their exteriors survive as living snapshots of the architecture and aesthetics of the eras of their construction. The Green and South Street would have a completely different look and feel if they were not anchored by historic churches. The churches and the other historic structures making up the Morristown Historic District contribute to a common whole.
“Indeed, the Morristown and Morris Township Library on South Street , which is itself has received State and County historic preservation grants, was, at great expense, originally built to resemble St. Peter’s Church next door. To preserve one but not the other would make no sense. This is why the State Constitution permits the County to make grants to churches on the same neutral criteria used to preserve other historic structures,” Wilbur said.
Between 2002 and 2014, more than $7 million was granted to 24 religious institutions across Morris County for preservation projects, the Star-Ledger reported. That’s about one-third of the total disbursed.
Voters approved the Morris County Open Space & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund in 1992. Funds are from county property taxes, which taxpayers twice voted to increase for this purpose.
In 2015, Freeholder Hank Lyon introduced a measure to ax grants to houses of worship. It triggered intense public debate, and he withdrew the proposal, saying it was a matter for the courts to decide.