The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today offered some good news in an Americans United case that challenged a town’s decision to issue taxpayer-funded grants to a house of worship.
The court reversed a lower court’s ruling that Acton could fund restoration of Acton Congregational Church. It ordered a preliminary injunction against using public money to restore the church’s stained-glass windows that feature religious imagery, and sent the case back to the lower court for further scrutiny of whether Acton could use a statewide historic preservation grant program to fund any improvements to houses of worship.
“Today is a good day for religious freedom in Massachusetts,” said Rachel Laser, AU’s executive director. “Money taken from the taxes of all citizens should go to funding projects for the public good, not religious imagery in houses of worship.”
The case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, was brought by Americans United, in partnership with attorneys Douglas Mishkin and Joshua Cumby of the Venable law firm, on behalf of 13 Massachusetts taxpayers and was spurred by concerns from AU’s Massachusetts chapter. The case challenged the town’s decision to use the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act, through which communities can provide government grants to private landowners for the restoration of historic buildings, to restore houses of worship.
Acton wanted to give $100,000 worth of grant money to a church for restoration of stained-glass windows with religious imagery and a “Master Plan” to evaluate the restoration needs of the church itself and two other church-owned properties. The church has an active congregation and in its grant request, it conceded that it wanted taxpayer funding so that it could save its own money for religious programming.
“People should not be compelled to contribute to a church to which they do not belong,” Ronal Madnick, president of the Massachusetts chapter and an AU board member, told AU’s Church & State magazine when the case was filed. “Every Acton taxpayer who wishes to support churches because of their historic value to the community is free to contribute. If a church needs money to preserve or restore its buildings, it should raise that money from its own members.
“Government should not pick and choose which churches to support,” Madnick continued. “Allowing these grants to proceed will only lead to more requests for funds by other houses of worship, and the town or city will be inviting accusations of religious favoritism if those requests are denied.”
AU is hopeful that Massachusetts courts ultimately will agree and stop Acton from allowing taxpayer money to fund houses of worship.
“We understand that these long-standing houses of worship are part of Massachusetts’ history,” said Eric Rothschild, AU’s senior litigation counsel. “But the constitutional principle of separation of religion and government, which protects all citizens’ religious freedom, is an even more fundamental part of its history and its values. The court’s decision today clearly reflects that.”