Through the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act, municipalities can provide grants to private landowners for the restoration of historic buildings. The Town of Acton, Massachusetts, decided to give preservation grants for improvements to two churches that it deemed historic. The Town awarded Acton Congregational Church two grants, one to fund restoration of stained-glass windows (some containing overtly religious iconography) and one to fund development of a “master plan” for repairs and restoration of the church building and two residential buildings that the church also owns. Another grant, for roof restoration, was awarded to South Acton Congregational Church.
In July 2016, with pro bono assistance from Venable, LLP, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of thirteen Acton taxpayers who objected to having their tax dollars spent on rehabilitating church property. We argued that the Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution forbids tax funding of repairs to churches.
We also moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent Acton from disbursing the grant money while the litigation was pending. In September 2016, the trial court denied our request for a preliminary injunction. We appealed this decision. The Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’s highest court, agreed to hear the case. Before the appeal was resolved, South Acton Congregational Church withdrew its grant application.
The Court issued its decision in March 2018. By a five-to-one vote, the Court ruled that our clients were entitled to a preliminary injunction against the grant for repairs to the stained-glass windows. The Court also ruled that we were entitled to proceed with discovery related to the master-plan grant, vacating the denial of an injunction. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.
Acton Congregational Church withdrew its applications for funding in August 2018. As all the grant applications we challenged had been abandoned, we agreed to dismiss the case in September 2018.