Americans United this week urged the New Jersey Supreme Court to stop Morris County officials from awarding taxpayer-funded grants to houses of worship.

Since 2012, Morris County has distributed more than $4.5 million in tax revenue to a dozen active churches through an historical preservation program. These grants are in direct conflict with the Religious Aid Clause in New Jersey’s state constitution, which proclaims that no resident can be compelled to pay taxes for “building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship.”

“State constitutional history shows that the Religious Aid Clause was intended to prohibit public funding of religion, and that preventing tax support of buildings used for religious worship was one of its principal aims,” our brief says. “History also teaches that the funding at issue here could result in the evils that the Religious Aid Clause was meant to guard against: violation of taxpayers' freedom of conscience; public funding of religion on an extensive scale; weakening of religious institutions through increased dependence on governmental support; governmental interference with churches; and division between religious groups.”

The lawsuit, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, was filed on behalf of county resident David Steketee, who rightfully objects to his tax dollars funding houses of worship.

Our brief notes that unlike in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer – in which the high court ruled that a church-affiliated preschool can participate in Missouri’s publicly funded grant program to resurface playgrounds – the New Jersey churches are using the money for explicitly religious purposes.

The New Jersey grant money is used not just for exterior church repairs, but also to fix the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems of the houses of worship. One grant was even used to pay for the restoration of a stained-glass window portraying a religious scene. In their grant applications, many of the churches note the money will enable their buildings to continue to be used for worship and religious activities.

New Jersey's constitution bars tax dollars from being spent on building or repairing houses of worship.

Aside from violating New Jersey’s state constitution, the grant funding provided to the houses of worship also runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that public money must not support religious worship or activity, which this program permits.

Additionally, because the New Jersey grant program excludes some secular entities, the program also violates the First Amendment prohibition on government showing favor for religion. Grant money is available only for historical buildings operated by religious organizations, county and municipal governments, and nonprofits whose purposes include historic preservation. Nonprofits that aren’t involved in historic preservation are excluded from the grants, as are businesses and individuals. It is unconstitutional for the grant program to treat secular entities differently than religious organizations.

“Funding for historic preservation is not a neutrally available public-safety benefit such as police and fire protection,” the brief notes. “Indeed, the funding here is not neutrally available at all; instead, the funding criteria favor religious institutions.”

The provision in New Jersey’s constitution that bars public funds from being used for religious buildings, called a no-aid clause, dates back to 1776 and was reaffirmed by state legislators in 1844 and 1947. To now allow taxpayer support of religion is at odds with nearly 250 years of history.

We argue a lower court misinterpreted the state’s no-aid clause when it ruled in the county’s favor last year, and we ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to overturn that decision and rule in favor of the county taxpayers who shouldn’t be forced to support any religion against their will.

Americans United will continue to fight to support the wall of separation between church and state, because that’s what protects everyone’s right to believe or not as we see fit. To stay informed about our work, sign up for our emails here.