By Louise Witt
For David Steketee, Morris County’s historic preservation grants for churches to repair bell towers, stained glass windows and slate roofs damaged something of even greater historic value: The nation’s founding principle of the separation of church and state.
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Madison resident. On Wednesday, in a unanimous opinion, the justices ruled the county’s Preservation Trust Fund grants to churches violate the state constitution’s Religious Aid Clause.
Dating back to 1776, the clause states no person will 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…”
Steketee and The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit promoting the separation of church and state, sued the Morris County Freeholders to prevent disbursement of taxpayer money to area churches for repairs and renovations that benefit their members.
The Presbyterian Church in Morristown, for example, received more than $1 million in grants, stating funds would allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services.”
With this ruling, Steketee said he believes New Jersey taxpayers of all faiths and beliefs are winners.
“No one has to worry about the issue of balancing their conscience and paying their taxes,” he said. “They don’t have to contribute to a religion. Now they know that their tax dollars are going to secular purposes.”
The churches may appeal portions of the decision.
It does not accurately reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran ruling, which held that churches cannot be excluded from “neutral public welfare programs,” according to Kenneth Wilbur, attorney for the churches.
“The church is disappointed with the decision, which it believes is incorrect, and is considering a possible appeal to the United States Supreme Court regarding those aspects of the decision related to Trinity Lutheran and the federal constitution,” said Walt J. Fleischer, a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church in Morristown.
Morris County Administrator John Bonanni said the county’s legal team also is reviewing the decision.
‘RELIGION NEVER CAME UP AT HOME’
Steketee, 41, isn’t a constitutional scholar. The father of two, who moved from Morristown to Madison two years ago, works on software architecture at a big four accounting firm. But he has researched the First Amendment’s separation of church and state since his high school debate class.
In college, he studied journalism and advertising, but also enrolled in constitutional law courses. Over the years, he’s followed religious freedom decisions.
“I’ve read a ton of cases in this law,” he said, rattling off a list of major legal decisions on the separation of church and state. “I’ve read them from start to finish.”
When Steketee was growing up in St. Louis, Mo., he said his family didn’t discuss religious issues. His father was a Christian. His mother converted to Judaism. He was raised Jewish, but knew he was an atheist by the time he was eight.
“Religion never came up at home,” he said. “It wasn’t actively discussed.”
Steketee never expected to play a role protecting religious freedom. Five years ago, he walked by a Morristown church with a plaque declaring grants funded its renovations.
When he went home, he researched Morris County’s Historic Preservation Trust Fund’s website. After reviewing the trust’s records, he discovered even churches with large congregations and substantial revenue were recipients of taxpayer money for upkeep and maintenance of their structures.
Steketee doesn’t oppose houses of worship receiving public funds for secular community programs, such as soup kitchens, children activities and social services. However, he does think repairs to a structure are different, because they help the church provide religious services to their members.
“They neglected their properties,” he said. “I’m not upset churches are being restored. I was disappointed our legislative body, the county freeholders, wantonly violated our state constitution. It says very plainly that you can’t use tax dollars for church repairs.”
Between 2012 and 2015, a dozen churches, including St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and the Assumption Church in Morristown, received $4.6 million in grants, accounting for more than 40 percent of the grants made during that period, according to the court’s ruling.
Voters approved establishment of the Preservation Trust Fund, which collects 5/8 of a cent per $100 of property owners’ assessed tax valuation, in 2002.
At a public meeting, Steketee told freeholders the Trust’s grants for church repairs violated the New Jersey Constitution. They disagreed. “We could have avoided two years of legal wrangling, if the freeholders had listened to reason,” he said.
LOWER COURT REVERSED
In 2015, Steketee joined The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sued the county. Last year, a state Superior Court judge sided with the county, ruling that the grants were for historic purposes and did not promote religion. It would be unfair to shut out churches from seeking grants available to all historic venues, according to that decision.
The state’s high court overruled the lower court’s decision. The ruling doesn’t require the churches to return the money they have received.
In his opinion, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote: “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.”
The ACLU of New Jersey along with the national ACLU and Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the lawsuit.
“This decision makes a powerful statement: Our taxpayer funds should not go to support religious worship,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas in a statement. “Awarding state grant money to refurbish active houses of worship would have undermined that fundamental constitutional principle.”
The Morris County Tourism Bureau said the ruling might hurt the county’s appeal to visitors.
“The elimination of public preservation funds for church restoration will be a great loss, especially for Morristown, known as a town of ‘steeple and spires,’” the tourism bureau said in a statement.
“Hopefully alternative funding will be made available for churches so that these architectural gems, making up the fabric of some of Morris County’s loveliest historic towns, will be maintained, and of continued interest to heritage travelers.”
Steketee said he doesn’t see the state high court’s ruling as a win for atheism, but for the state’s constitution’s separation of church and state.
“My religion, or lack of, did not inform my take on this case,” he said. “I saw this as purely a constitutional issue.”