Reversing a lower court ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that Morris County historic preservation grants to churches violate the New Jersey Constitution.
“The plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and Morris County’s program ran afoul of that long-standing provision,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the 62-page opinion.
A dozen churches — including St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Assumption Church in Morristown–received $4.6 million from the county freeholders between 2012 and 2015.
While the churches don’t have to return the money, they cannot get any more, according to the ruling.
The grants funded repairs of everything from bell towers and stained glass windows to roofs and ventilation systems. They were challenged in 2015 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Madison resident David Steketee.
Siding with the county, a state judge in January 2017 ruled the grants were for historic purposes and did not promote religion. Denying churches grants offered to all historical venues would be discriminatory, according to that decision.
But the plaintiffs’ appeal argued that Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution unambiguously states “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.”
“It’s shocking that it took a trip to the New Jersey Supreme Court to enforce such a plain constitutional command,” Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. “New Jersey taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief that their constitutional religious liberty rights have been protected.”
The Foundation questioned more than $1 million granted to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, citing a church statement that the money would allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services.”
It also pointed to grants to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to ensure “continued safe public access to the church for worship.”
“Had Morris County’s program been applied in a fundamentally neutral manner, the Religious Aid Clause could not bar funding to an otherwise qualified religious institution,” Associate Justice Lee Solomon determined in a concurring opinion.
‘HARD TIMES FOR HOUSES OF WORSHIP’
County and church officials expressed disappointment with the decision. Morris County Administrator John Bonanni said the county’s legal team is reviewing it.
“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 in the history of how our county, state and nation developed,” Bonanni said in a statement.
“We believe historic churches are a strong component of that overall rich history, and we have considered churches – only those eligible for the State or National Registers of Historic Places – among historic sites that have been eligible for consideration by the county’s historic preservation grant program.”
The Rev. Janet Broderick, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, was saddened.
“These are really hard times for houses of worship. And we really do so much for the community,” Broderick said.
The church, which used grant money to patch its leaky bell tower, runs after-school programs and a soup kitchen, among other community ventures.
Kenneth Wilbur, the Florham Park attorney representing the churches, said the high court failed to recognize that the grants were intended “not to aid religion, but to advance the government’s secular interest in historic preservation as a means of protecting the public health, safety and welfare.”
Under the court’s reasoning, he said, the state could not preserve the historic exterior of Boston’s Old North Church, if it were here. Nor could it restore St. Michael’s Church in Trenton, where Americans gave their lives for independence during the Battle of Trenton.
And the decision did not square with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran opinion, which held that churches cannot be categorically excluded from “neutral public welfare programs,” Wilbur said in a statement.
Morris County’s churches “have never denied that they pray in their buildings. The fact that prayer occurs inside these structures, however, should not deprive the public of the benefit of preserving their historic exteriors, which is all that the grants do,” Wilbur said.