New Jersey SC hears challenge to grant scheme for preservation of historic churches

(Wikimedia Commons/Dagrecco1982)Immaculate Heart Of Mary & St Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has begun to hear the arguments in the case challenging the preservation grant scheme that allows historic churches in the state to receive taxpayer funds to fix damages to their buildings.

Seven historic churches in New Jersey headed to the state's high court on Monday to present their arguments that they should be included in an award of $2.9 million in grants to help preserve 25 historic sites.

In 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit to challenge the practice of awarding grants to historic churches for restoration or repairs, arguing that it is a violation of the state Constitution.

In January, a Somerset County Superior Court judge upheld the grant scheme, prompting the FFRF to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Despite the lawsuit, a review board recommended to Morris County freeholders that the seven historic churches be included in the preservation grant scheme.

"These preservation funds, overwhelmingly approved by county taxpayers, help finance the protection our county's heritage, to ensure that we maintain important links to our past," Freeholder Director Doug Cabana said in a statement about the recommendation in July.

At the hearing on Monday, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said that the text of New Jersey Constitution made it clear that taxes cannot be used to build or repair churches.

"How is this not a repair?" Rabner asked, adding that the difference between repairs and historical preservation appear to be mere semantics.

Ken Wilbur, an attorney for the grant-recipient churches, contended that "repair is a different concept than preservation."

"The government here is not spending its money to benefit religion, it is spending its money to benefit the public," Wilbur said, according to Courthouse News.

John Bowens, who represents Morris County, argued that the local governments overseeing the grants make sure that the money is spent on preservation rather than interior repairs.

He acknowledged that the grants were used to pay for plumbing and mechanical repairs, as well as repairs to stained-glass windows in two cases. But he argued that none of the grants were used to pay for the interior repairs for the churches.

Several of the justices pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which the court held 7-2 that churches can receive state money for secular purposes, particularly those that promote the public welfare.

Wilbur argued that the ruling requires New Jersey to uphold the grant scheme, adding that the state is participating in a neutral public welfare program by preserving a historic building.

However, Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that the problem with the Trinity Lutheran decision is that mixed-use religious buildings, such as a church basement that can sometimes be used as a soup kitchen, could not receive state funds.

Courthouse News noted that about $850,000 out of $2.9 million in state grants were approved for six places of worship in July 2017.

The grant recommendations made by the review board to the Morris County Board of Freeholders in Morristown include $2,746 for the Women's Club of Morristown headquarters building and $283,560 for the South Street Presbyterian Church in Morristown. The money reportedly comes from the voter-approved Morris County Open Space, Farmland, Floodplain Protection and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.

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