Is it ever OK for a church to receive taxpayer money for a restoration project? A Massachusetts judge seems to think so.
Trinity Methodist Church opened in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in 1879, and it remains an active congregation to this day. As will happen with old buildings, it’s overdue for some repairs. Specifically, the stained glass windows are in need of restoration.
The problem is Oak Bluffs wants to use $32,000 worth of Community Preservation Act money, which comes from a surcharge on local property taxes, to finance the project.
Ten residents didn’t like the sound of this scheme, and they sued to block public money from being handed over to a church.
Unfortunately, a court didn’t see anything wrong with this ploy. Superior Court Judge Richard T. Moses ruled that blocking the church from getting the money “wouldn’t be in the public interest,” the Vineyard Gazette reported Monday.
Moses seems to have ignored the Massachusetts Constitution, which calls for strict church-state separation.
“No grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of credit shall be made or authorized by the Commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any infirmary, hospital, institution, primary or secondary school, or charitable or religious undertaking which is not publicly owned,” reads that document in part.
It goes on to say, “[N]o such grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.”
What part of “no grant” does Moses not understand?
The lead plaintiff in this case, Brian P. Hughes, told the Gazette: “There seems to be no end in sight. One can imagine that eventually every old church in Massachusetts will seek to maintain its physical structure with public monies. There is a significant difference between a sectarian entity raising money voluntarily from the general public to preserve an historic church and compelling citizens to maintain a church through taxation.”
Hughes is right. Trinity Methodist Church may be an antique, but it isn’t just some museum. It holds worship services at 10 every Sunday morning. That sounds like an active church to me.
Houses of worship in need of repair should ask their own congregants to foot the bill, not the local government. And since this is Martha’s Vineyard we’re talking about, I’m betting cash isn’t in short supply.
I love history and by extension historic buildings, and I hate to see an older structure fall into disrepair. But it’s wrong for taxpayers to be forced by their government to pay to fix up any structure used mainly for religious purposes, regardless of that building’s age.
If Trinity Methodist Church is so beloved by its community, then those individuals who want to fix the church’s windows should find a way to repair them – with their own money. If the community won’t pay for the restoration voluntarily, then maybe the community doesn’t value the church as much as some people would claim.