In Two Church-State Cases, AU Urges New Jersey Supreme Court To Support Religious Freedom

This week, Americans United joined allies to argue in the New Jersey Supreme Court for the support of church-state separation in two cases.

In both cases, taxpayer money is being distributed to religious entities in violation of the no-aid clause of New Jersey’s constitution, which proclaims that no resident shall “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.”

In one case, AU and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey are challenging $11 million in grants that were awarded by the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to divinity schools. The grants went to Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, and the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary, both of which are dedicated to religious training and engage in discrimination. The yeshiva trains Orthodox Jewish rabbis, excludes women and employs only male, Jewish faculty. The seminary “prepares women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries” and permits only Christians to be degree students or faculty.

The two schools were among 176 New Jersey educational institutions set to receive funds for construction projects through a voter-approved bond issue.

The lawsuit, ACLU of New Jersey v. Hendricks, was filed in 2013 on behalf of three New Jersey taxpayers (including AU Delaware Valley Chapter member Gloria Schor Andersen) and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey. Last year, a New Jersey appellate court agreed with AU that the grants violate the New Jersey constitution’s no-aid clause, but the state appealed the decision.

In the second church-state case heard by New Jersey’s highest court this week, AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser presented oral argument in support of Morris County resident David Steketee, who rightfully objects to his tax dollars being used to support houses of worship.

AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser arguing before the New Jersey Supreme Court on Oct. 23, 2017.

Since 2012, Morris County in northern New Jersey has awarded more than $4.5 million in tax money to a dozen active churches through an historical preservation program. The 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.

Additionally, because the Morris County 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.

“I argued to the court that this grant program runs afoul of the purposes of New Jersey’s no-aid clause,” said Luchenitser. “The program violates taxpayers’ freedom of conscience by forcing them to support religious beliefs to which they do not subscribe; threatens the independence of churches through grant conditions that restrict what the churches may do with their own buildings; and triggers religious division because newer, minority religious groups are unlikely to own historic buildings and receive funding.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief over the summer in support of Steketee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the case, FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, on Steketee’s behalf.

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

In both of these cases, AU and our allies urged the New Jersey Supreme Court to support religious freedom and ensure that the state’s residents are not compelled to fund religious institutions and beliefs that may be at odds with their own beliefs.

The provision in New Jersey’s constitution that bars public funds from being used for religious buildings 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.